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Members of Congress Challenge Vanderbilt on Religious Freedom

Congressman Randy Forbes (R-VA), Chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, joined with Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Rep. Diane Black, both Tennessee Republicans, and with 33 of their House colleagues in sending a letter urging Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos and other leaders of Vanderbilt University to respect religious liberty. 

Vanderbilt University last year began insisting on an “all-comers” nondiscrimination policy for student organizations, specifically stating, “the University does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.” Several religious student groups were placed on “provisional status” for requiring their student leaders to embrace the group’s religious beliefs, and a number could be forced to disassociate with Vanderbilt if the school does not put in place a religious exemption. Notably, Vanderbilt professor Carol Swain, who has been a leading voice in opposing the university's policy, was a speaker at NRB's public policy debate in Nashville during NRB 2012.

In their letter, the Members of Congress express concern that Vanderbilt is implementing its nondiscrimination policy “in a manner that targets religious student organizations, creating an environment hostile to their existence on campus.”  While noting respect for the school’s autonomy as a private institution, they urge an exemption that would recognize “that religious organizations should have the same freedom as other organizations to select leaders who are best-qualified to lead the groups.”

The Tennessee State Legislature passed a measure to prevent its state institutions from following Vanderbilt’s lead, and a provision was included demanding that Vanderbilt either drop its policy or truly apply it across the board, including to sororities and fraternities that are currently exempt.  Governor Bill Haslam has announced his intention to veto the bill, citing concerns with the government mandating policy for a private institution.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President Government Relations