Non-Discrimination Policies Do Not Threaten Religious Freedom

Within our nation's supposed "war on religion," a new antagonist may be rising to the front lines: the non-discrimination policy.

Or at least that is what some will lead you to think. My experience as student body president dealing with a situation involving our university's non-discrimination policy and a religious student group leads me to believe otherwise.

Making national news recently is the decision by Vandy Catholic -- a student group at Vanderbilt University -- not to comply with the university's "all-comers" non-discrimination policy and become an independent, non-affiliated group. Vanderbilt's policy requires, among other things, that no discrimination take place through the refusal of either membership or the opportunity to run for leadership positions. The group's president explained their decision by claiming that the policy prohibits the group from enforcing "faith-based qualifications for leadership."

Fox News chose to report the story with this opening question: "Is Vanderbilt University waging a war on religion?"

For those familiar with situations such as this, such an assertion is ludicrous.

Last year at the University of Puget Sound, a Christian group was suspended from its status as an ASUPS club by the university. This past fall, when students returned to campus, there was speculation surrounding the reasons for this suspension, leading to this article by The Trail, our student newspaper. In a written statement, the co-presidents of the group admitted that the suspension process was initiated because of a situation regarding a former leader of the group leaving due to the group's stance on issues regarding homosexuality. They also stated that there were other violations that led to their suspension.

The group has since been re-recognized by our student government, is active on campus, and has inserted a non-discrimination statement into its constitution -- as all groups are asked to do.

Much of the dilemma within this process was instigated by the student group's national affiliate, InterVarsity, and InterVarsity's reluctance to allow for a non-discrimination policy in the group's constitution. Had there been no national affiliate pressuring the group, the situation would not have taken nearly as long to resolve.

When discussing this issue last spring with our University Chaplain, I speculated that the issue of non-discrimination policies could rise to the national level of conversation in the near future. And here we are now.

A few things need to be cleared up. The first is that non-discrimination policies do not "discriminate" against religious groups, unless holding all groups to the same standards of non-discrimination somehow can be evaluated as discriminatory.

The second is that these policies do not require groups to elect any "types" of leaders; the policies simply ask that there be no discriminatory provisions in the process that would prohibit anyone from running for a leadership position.

Finally, no one is kicking either individual students or groups off campus who refuse to abide by these policies. As was experienced by the group at Puget Sound, a suspension from ASUPS-recognition meant that they were not eligible to use student funding, meet in spaces specifically reserved for student clubs, or reserve a table at our annual club fair, LogJam. The group still stayed on campus, and quite visible, before choosing to take the steps necessary to become re-recognized.

What disappoints me most, though, is the refusal of the national discussion thus far to exhibit transparency by discussing what this issue is really about: the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity categories into non-discrimination policies, and the resulting resistance from some groups due to this inclusion.

While defenders of student religious groups have used rhetoric such as "faith-based qualifications" and "religious freedom," it's time for us to throw aside the axiomatic sugarcoating and start focusing on the issue at hand, which is LGBT-Q membership and leadership in religious student groups.

No one is forcing groups to elect LGBT-Q members as leaders, and it is a misreading of the non-discrimination policy to assume that this is what it requires of those who abide by it. The policy simply prevents student groups from prohibiting those of non-heterosexual orientations and non-traditional gender identities from being able to run for leadership positions.

The only groups affected by non-discrimination policies appear to be religious groups who apply "faith-based qualifications" -- insert, if you will, "our narrow reading of our extraordinarily-complex religious text" -- to potential leaders, since their "faith-based qualifications" are inherently and explicitly discriminatory.

Non-discrimination policies do not "wage a war" on religion; they simply ask groups utilizing the university's name and student funds to refrain from discrimination by race, gender, and -- among many other things -- sexual orientation and gender identity.

How that amounts to a war on religion, I am not sure. Perhaps the commentators at Fox News will be kind enough to fill me in.