Blog Home » Articles posted by Travis C. Barham - ADF Litig. Staff Counsel (Page 3)

Will Tennessee’s Governor Veto Religious Freedom?

In the past few weeks, the students from the campus ministries that have stood together in defense of religious freedom at Vanderbilt have found a surprising ally:  the Tennessee Legislature.  Earlier this week, the legislature passed a bill that prohibits schools like Vanderbilt—non-religious schools that receive significant amounts of state funding—from requiring religious student groups to accept leaders who do not share their faith.  It also prevents public universities from adopting similar policies.

However, it appears that Governor Haslam may actually veto this legislation that holds recipients of tax dollars accountable for how they treat their students.  Over at The Corner, David French highlights the errors in the Governor’s reasoning in a post well worth reading in its entirety.  Hopefully, freedom-loving Tennesseans will persuade their governor to change course so that he will not hand Vanderbilt a public policy and public relations victory.


ADF Litigation Staff Counsel ADF Center for Academic Freedom

Free Speech Versus Vandalism at Western Kentucky University

Posted on April 26th, 2012 Freedom of Speech,Prolife | 5 Comments »

Pro-Life Cross DisplayThough universities frequently wax eloquent about the critical importance of free speech, they often fail to protect vigorously the basic freedoms of pro-life students.  And Western Kentucky University is the latest example of this gap between rhetoric and reality on campus.

Last week, WKU’s pro-life student group—Hilltopper’s for Life—set up a Cemetery of the Innocents display.  It consisted of about 3,700 small crosses, commemorating the number of lives lost to abortion in the United States everyday.  But in the wee hours of the morning on April 20th, Elaina Smith—an art student at WKU—began placing condoms on each of the crosses.  When members of Hilltoppers for Life confronted her and asked her to stop, she refused.  When campus security officers arrived, they did nothing, claiming that “the condoms aren’t actually vandalism.”  For her part, Ms. Smith claimed she was completing an approved art assignment by desecrating this pro-life display.

Quickly, the University shifted into damage control mode.  President Ransdell issued a statement on April 24th, saying that Ms. Smith’s art professor, Kristina Arnold, never intended to target the pro-life event.  However, Dr. Arnold told local media that she did not disapprove of Ms. Smith’s proposed vandalism via condoms, and she even defended it as an example of “[c]ritical engagement with ideas.”

President Ransdell also tried to assure the public that the “offending student has apologized.”  Apparently this was news to Ms. Smith, according to the e-mail she sent local reporters and even WKU officials yesterday:

From:  “Smith, Elaina, C”
. . .
Sent:  Wednesday, April 25, 2012 3:11 PM
Subject:  Elaina Smith

During the week of April 16th, the Hilltoppers for Life’s pro-life display remained un-interrupted.  The student body tolerated this intrusion without major incident.  The voice of the pro-life community was heard.  On the last day of this event, I attempted to add to the visual dialogue with my own voice and was met with strong resistance.  I take this subject very seriously, and had hoped to remind people of the effectiveness of condoms and other forms of contraception in preventing unwanted pregnancies.  I do not ask that everyone agree with my point of view or the way in which I tried to express it.  However, I stand by my actions.  I do not believe that I impeded anyone else’s freedom of expression.  I did not break any laws.  I did not damage any property.  I voluntarily removed the condoms even though I was not required to do so.  At the time, I thought that the matter had ended there.  I do not feel that I should apologize for attempting to exercise the freedoms that we all are entitled to.

Elaina Smith

Perhaps, it is time that Ms. Smith and her professor enrolled in Free Speech 101.  This pro-life display was not “an intrusion” to be “tolerated”; it is the very sort of expression that the First Amendment exists to protect.  She did not “add to the visual dialogue”; she engaged in vandalism.  If she wanted to communicate her message or showcase “critical engagement with ideas,” she could hold her own event.  She is perfectly free to desecrate crosses and call it “art.”  (After all, “art” covers just about anything, and she might even get government funding.)  But the First Amendment does not allow her to hijack someone else’s expression and to desecrate someone else’s display.

If pro-life students had disrupted a pro-abortion event, it is likely that professors and the administration would be falling all over themselves to issue proclamations, punish the students, hold candlelight vigils, and sponsor endless seminars on civility and tolerance.  But they have done nothing—other than hold secret meetings and issue broad platitudes—to ensure that pro-life speech is protected.  To the administration, the matter is closed.  Move along, nothing to see here.

But WKU spoke a bit prematurely.  Today, President Ransdell received a letter from ADF, insisting that WKU take concrete action to punish those who conducted and facilitated this vandalism and to protect pro-life expression.  We sincerely hope that he and the rest of the WKU administration will recognize that they have a duty to protect the First Amendment freedoms of all their students, including pro-lifers who endeavor to provide a voice for the voiceless.


ADF Litigation Staff Counsel ADF Center for Academic Freedom

Vanderbilt’s Mask Slips, Revealing Its Hostility to Christians

MaskLast week, a brief e-mail to a small Christian organization collapsed the false front that Vanderbilt has erected over the past school year.  Vanderbilt has labored to concoct a new “nondiscrimination” policy that actually discriminates:  it prohibits Christian groups from selecting leaders that share their faith while it simultaneously allows Greek organizations to select leaders as they always have.  The whole time Vanderbilt has claimed that it is not hostile to religious students or to religious freedom.

Well, the façade has cracked.  Months ago, a small Christian organization tried to renew its recognized status, and it submitted its constitution, which included this sentence:

Criteria for officer selection will include level and quality of past involvement, personal commitment to Jesus Christ, commitment to the organization, and demonstrated leadership ability.

At the end of January, members of this group met with Vanderbilt administrators, who said that this constitution was fine and complied with the University’s policies.

Everything changed last week when the group learned that it would not be recognized unless it made one change to its constitution.  How did Vanderbilt want the group to change?  It must stop requiring leaders to have a “personal commitment to Jesus Christ.”  The University dictated that this ministry can only select leaders based on “level and quality of past involvement, commitment to the organization, and demonstrated leadership ability.”

Of course, Vanderbilt still claims to prize religious freedom, but actions speak louder than words.  It only makes sense for a ministry dedicated to sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to select leaders who have a “personal commitment to Jesus Christ.”  That is the only way it can accomplish its goal.  But to Vanderbilt, such common-sense criteria cannot be tolerated.  If a Christian ministry cannot have leaders who share a commitment to Christ, then religious freedom does not even exist in theory at Vanderbilt.

Over the past school year, many groups and individuals have seen through Vanderbilt’s public pose and warned about the new dangers to religious freedom on campus.  Commentators like George Will have sounded the alarm, as have members of Congress.  When Vanderbilt was thus thrust into the public light, Chancellor Zeppos could not coherently unveil the policy, and Vanderbilt administrators could hardly explain it at a town hall meeting.  And so, students from a coalition of religious organizations have started trumpeting the threats to their freedoms, while others have publicly announced that they cannot compromise their convictions.  Last week, the Tennessee Legislature joined the fray, threatening to cut off funding to Vanderbilt.

But now Vanderbilt has put the hostility to Christians inherent in its new policy on full display.  By requiring a Christian ministry to drop even a reference to “personal commitment to Jesus Christ” from its constitution, the University is forcing the group to choose between its place on campus and its convictions, and it is showing its disdain for even the most basic levels of religious freedom.  Sadly, it is growing increasingly clear that religious students who actually take their faith serious have no place on Vanderbilt’s campus.


ADF Litigation Staff Counsel ADF Center for Academic Freedom

Vanderbilt’s Two-Stepping Town Hall

YouTube Preview Image

Vanderbilt’s crack-down on religious groups has captured headlines and ignited controversy on campus.  Chancellor Zeppos’ recent “message” on “nondiscrimination” announced a town hall to explain everything.  At this meeting, the dean of the divinity school served as a religious stage prop while Provost Richard McCarty and General Counsel David G. Williams filled three hours with double-talk.

Both the complete footage and the highlights above expose Vanderbilt’s policy change for what it is:  a purge cloaked in a nondiscrimination guise that targets religious students who make the mistake of taking their faith and freedoms seriously.  And it is lead by people who do not understand the role of religion in students’ lives, who have little regard for basic freedoms, and who refuse to put their policy in writing.

For example, a student eloquently explained that just as it is impossible for religious students to separate their faith from the rest of life, so religious groups necessarily make faith-based decisions.  Provost McCarty replied, “Everyone isn’t as fortunate as you are to be firm in their faith.”  So what?  When students want to become stronger, whom do they seek?  People who are firm in their faith?  Or groups engaged in false advertising (e.g., Jewish groups run by Hindus, Mormon groups run by Baptists)?  Vanderbilt mandates the latter.  But this is not surprising, seeing how the Provost emphatically declared that his faith does not and should not affect his decisions at all.  That is, of course, his privilege.  It would be nice if he would allow others to choose differently.

Nor did the administrators fare any better at Freedom 101.  Mr. Williams announced that if a group does not accept everyone, it discriminates.  Actually, this is called freedom of association, which—as the Supreme Court has repeatedly declared—includes the freedom not to associate.  But then again, Mr. Williams has a strange view of this freedom, one that tells groups:  “Either you let everyone in, or you won’t exist.”  This may be many things, but free association it is not.

So what exactly is Vanderbilt’s new policy?  Well, no one knows—not even the administrators.  Mr. McCarty announced an “all-comers” policy.  But fraternities and sororities exclude people for all sorts of reasons, including sex.  Mr. Williams waffled on whether they would be exempted, but not on how this policy would apply to religious groups:  “What we’re against is you basically saying, ‘The only people who can run for leadership—or the only people who we will establish as leaders—have to share that belief.’”  Despite the overall fog of Vanderbilt’s “fire, ready, aim” approach to creating policy, one thing is clear:  religious groups will not enjoy the freedom of religious association.

This shifting double-standard irritated students, who repeatedly asked for a written policy.  But this was too much to ask of Provost McCarty, who explained that “it is virtually impossible to put down in a single document all of the permutation that we have talked about tonight in one tightly written policy.”  Somehow, the thousands of universities that dot the American landscape from sea to shining sea have all managed to create such a written policy.  For that matter, the countless elementary, middle, and high schools have too.  But it is too daunting a task for Vanderbilt.  In fairness, though, it is difficult to concoct a policy that protects favored groups (like the Greek system), targets Christians, and also appears even-handed.

However, to the Provost, all of this is much ado about nothing.  After all, as he announced to the students:  “You’re saying to me, ‘I’m making you do something that you don’t want to do.’  And I am telling that’s not what I am asking you to do.”  Really?  Then why change the policy?  Such obfuscation cannot conceal the reality.  Vanderbilt demands that Christian groups consider Jewish leaders, that Jewish groups consider Hindu leaders, etc. (thus exposing them to discrimination complaints if such students get voted down).  Students rightfully object to this violation of religious freedom.  And the University says, “Do it anyway, or go away.”

Regardless, the Provost assured students that he saw no danger that a group would be “subverted by a couple of dedicated individuals that want to somehow divert the group from its original intent.”  Mr. Provost, meet Christian Legal Society.  It exists, among other things, to hold Bible studies.  But when it said that it expected its leaders to lead these studies, “a group of dedicated individuals”—all on Vanderbilt’s payroll—“diverted the group from its original intent” by denying CLS the recognition it needs to meet freely on campus.

Fortunately, Provost McCarty accentuated his absurdity with his solution for students serious about their beliefs and their freedoms:  “We’re asking you—oh, my gosh—to take a leap of faith for one year and give it a try.”  Christians, of all people, exercise faith, but it is in the Rock of Ages, not in an administrator who articulates such a vacillating, incoherent, and dangerously unwritten policy.

He also offered some advice to students who simply want to maintain the integrity of their group and its teachings:  “You will benefit greatly from being maybe a little bit more open on this issue.”  Here is a better idea for Vanderbilt:  “You will benefit greatly from being maybe a little bit more open to religious freedom.  It has grown in these parts since the Pilgrims.  Just try it.”


ADF Litigation Staff Counsel ADF Center for Academic Freedom

American Atheists…There They Go Again

Recently, the Georgia director of American Atheists announced that his organization would target two national Christian organizations—Child Evangelism Fellowship and Fellowship of Christian Athletes—for legal action.  What do these organizations do?  Well, they minister to thousands of children, often holding their meetings in public school buildings after school—as both the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act allow them to do.  But this upsets Mr. Stefanellis and his fellow atheists, so they accuse CEF and FCA of “targeting the impressionable minds of our children” and of using “unethical,” “immoral,” and “illegal” methods.  All of this ominous rhetoric amounts to nothing more than the type of intimidation tactics that atheists and secularists have specialized in for decades.  That said, it would be nice if Mr. Stefanellis and his comrades understood a few basic things.

First, the Constitution protects the rights of all Americans to advocate their beliefs.  This right even extends to atheists, a small, disgruntled minority who promote the faith-based belief that God does not exist and who regularly showcase the same kind of anti-religious rhetoric that Mr. Stefanellis spouts.  (In unpublished remarks, he even claimed that Jesus Christ never existed.  Perhaps a history lesson would be in order.)  It would be nice if these atheists would recognize that the Constitution extends the same right to the millions of Americans who cherish their religious beliefs.  Sadly, they insist instead on silencing religious expression at every turn, as if they and they alone are entitled to free speech.

Second, it would be nice if the atheists could keep their story straight.  They claim that children should not be exposed to religious views, but nonreligious (or even anti-religious) ones are welcome.  When fellow students and private ministries share their religious beliefs after school, the atheists call it “passive-aggressive proselytizing” and “indoctrination.”  But when government officials promote anti-Christian dogma during the school day, everything is just fine.  So while atheists talk about giving children “all the facts,” they really seek to advance their own values and silence all others.  Again, the Constitution allows them to advocate their faith, their values, and their morality.  But it also allows Christians to do the same.  This is what the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause is all about.

Last, these atheists need to understand that their bullying tactics will not work.  As federal courts have repeatedly confirmed, the Constitution allows religious students and organizations to use school facilities just like other students and community groups.  And it permits students to distribute religious tracts and flyers at school, just as it allows outside groups to do so if the school has opened a forum.  Atheists may not like the freedoms the Constitution grants, but they certainly have no problem with using them to advance their message.  We at the Alliance Defense Fund will vigilantly look out for any attempts from atheists to bully schools into silencing religious speech and accepting their anti-God agenda through legal threats.  And we will stand with organizations like CEF and FCA—and the countless Americans they represent—who prize both religion and freedom.


ADF Litigation Staff Counsel ADF Center for Academic Freedom

Search the Blog

Stay Connected to Speak Up.

View Posts by Author



© 2015 Alliance Defense Fund. All Rights Reserved.