Taking “religious freedom” too far?


The recent HHS mandate has left many crying out that religious freedom is under attack and being trampled on from all sides, but is it possible to take our nation’s cries of “My religious liberty is being violated!” too far? Catholic New Service has recently reported on another brewing controversy over a supposed threat to religious freedom, this time about Vanderbilt University’s anti-discrimination policy and how it applies to religion-based student organizations.

At Vanderbilt, a private university located in Nashville, TN, student faith organizations who are in good standing are given funding, meeting space, worship time in the on-campus chapel, space on the web server, and the ability to officially use Vanderbilt’s name. According to the university’s anti-discrimination policy, membership positions—including positions of leadership—in any officially registered student organization must be open to all, regardless of things such as religious beliefs.

This rule has Vanderbilt Catholic, among other faith-based groups such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, crying out that their religious liberty is being threatened. These organizations’ constitutions do not currently comply with the nondiscrimination policy, and without compliance, these groups could lose their standing as officially recognized student organizations. The groups have complained that the policy is being unfairly administered to religious organizations, especially since groups such as fraternities and sororities discriminate membership.

According to university Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos, "The university does not seek to limit anyone's freedom to practice his or her religion. We do, however, require all Vanderbilt-registered student organizations to observe our nondiscrimination policy. That means membership in registered student organizations is open to everyone and that everyone, if desired, has the opportunity to seek leadership positions."

So how exactly is religious freedom being violated here? Compliance with the anti-discrimination policy would not suppress the organization’s existence (in fact, noncompliance is the bigger threat there!). It wouldn't prevent anyone from living out their faith. It wouldn't force groups to recruit members who don't share certain faith beliefs, and it wouldn't require groups to elect these people as leaders. Rev. Mark Forrester, the United Methodist Affiliated Chaplain at Vanderbilt, has heard hypothetical arguments that caution against “hostile takeovers by rogue students bent upon destruction and mayhem." However, Forrester says, “While all things are possible, most students that I’ve talked to say, 'You are overestimating what kind of time we have on our hands.' "

While in the U.S. we hear of religious liberty being violated through contraception mandates and anti-discrimination policies, it’s important to not lose sight of what violations of religious freedom actually look like around the world. The State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report takes a look at some real examples where religious freedom is under siege. “Some governments, such as Iran and North Korea, seek to control religious thought and expression as part of a more comprehensive determination to control all aspects of political and civic life,” the report states. "Others intimidate and harass religious communities, or in severe cases like Eritrea, demand that adherents renounce their faith, or force them to relocate or flee the country. Still others discriminate against specific groups or favor one religion over others, as in Russia and Belarus.”

Adhering to an anti-discrimination policy doesn't seem like intimidation or harassment, especially of a nature that would force anyone to renounce their faith. We can't just cry "religious liberty" when something doesn't go our way. Let's save this language for situations when it really counts.

For more information on the persecution of Christians in places without religious liberty, you can visit persecution.org or christianpersecution.info.

About the author

Elizabeth Lefebvre

Elizabeth Lefebvre is a writer living in Chicago.