Is Vanderbilt wrong?

There is a bit of a brouhaha brewing over Vanderbilt University’s nondiscrimination policy regarding membership of registered student organizations (RSOs).

In a nutshell, their policy is as follows:

1. A student cannot be refused membership to a RSO on the basis of her beliefs or status (“status” refers to things like sexual orientation, race, etc.)

2. All members of an RSO must be permitted to run for office.

As might have been predicted, religious RSOs like Vanderbilt Catholic and the Graduate Christian Fellowship do not agree with the policy.

Before I continue, I should add that Vanderbilt makes it clear that some discriminatory practices are allowed. From their FAQ:

6. Does the University’s nondiscrimination policy permit RSOs to impose qualification- or performance-based eligibility requirements for membership or leadership?

Yes, as long as such requirements do not serve as pretexts for exclusion based on status or belief. Numerous RSOs have qualification- and performance-based requirements for membership or leadership that are fully consistent with University policy. In general, belief-neutral and status-neutral requirements are acceptable. Some examples:

– Singing groups require students to audition.

– Honor societies and others have GPA cutoffs.

– Groups may require members to pay dues.

– Groups may require members to attend meetings regularly.

– Groups may require that only those students who have been in good standing for a specified period of time or have served on at least one committee are eligible to be officers.

– Groups may have numerical limits to membership as long as membership is open to all students.

Having got this out of the way, I’m very tempted to side with the religious organizations.

My argument begins with the following question: Why are organizations (including businesses and corporations) generally not permitted, during the hiring or membership process, to discriminate on the basis of status or belief? I can think of at least two reasons:

1. Status and belief do not correlate in any way with a person’s intellectual or physical abilities, and therefore do not qualify as prima facie grounds for evaluation of prospective employees/members.

2. Status and belief are irrelevant to the work of the organization, so it is not appropriate to base hiring or membership practices on status and belief.

The next question is: do religious RSOs actually go against these arguments by wanting to admit only Catholic students?

The first argument concerns the intellectual or physical abilities of potential members. But an organization like Vanderbilt Catholic is presumably not concerned with either intellectual or physical prowess, at least not in the obvious sense that, say, an honor society or an athletics society might be. Indeed, there is no skill of any kind that is commonly associated with participation in a religious RSO, because participation is based purely on belief, not skill. Vanderbilt Catholic therefore makes no judgment of intellectual or physical ability at all. And if it makes no judgment, it cannot be said to be using status and belief as a basis of such judgment (even if it does use status and belief in some other discriminatory way).

The second argument concerns the relevance of the work. Since religious RSOs do work that is directly related to religious belief, such belief is, in fact, relevant to the work of the organization. The second argument therefore does not apply to religious RSOs because its basic premise does not hold.

It seems, then, that there is no good reason to stop a religious RSO from adopting a membership policy that discriminates on the basis of belief. (At least, no reason I can think of!)

Indeed, I feel compelled to ask why an honor society is allowed to discriminate on the basis of GPA, or why a choir is allowed to discriminate on the basis of musical talent, but a Catholic society is not allowed to discriminate on the basis of religious belief? In each case, the society is imposing an eligibility requirement that is appropriate for the work which that society wants to get done.


4 Responses to Is Vanderbilt wrong?

  1. Lurker111 says:

    The other consideration here is that, if a group cannot discriminate, any club could be strategically “swamped” by its opposition, e.g., a bunch of creationists could apply for membership in a biology or paleontology club, elect their own as officers, and make a sham of the organization.

    So there are problems to both sides of this issue.

  2. Keith says:

    Lurker111: Indeed. And the Vanderbilt FAQ includes just such a concern. The reply is basically “it hasn’t happened so far, so it probably won’t happen in the future”.

  3. Lurker111 says:

    I also like Vanderbilt’s phallic leaf symbol. 😉


  4. Keith says:

    Yes, I thought that too. 🙂

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