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Vanderbilt’s Two-Stepping Town Hall

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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

Left Wing Campus Magazine Attacks YAF For Defending First Amendment

Posted on July 13th, 2011 freedom of association | 3 Comments »

Here’s the last fifty years First Amendment rights on campus in a nutshell.  50 years ago the left advocated for the First Amendment rights of students (themselves) on campus.  They then gained positions of power in the universities and now run the show.  So that now when a conservative group stands up for the First Amendment rights of disfavored groups (now generally conservative groups like itself) on its campus, it is the left that dismisses the First Amendment and demands the status quo (the preservation of their own power). 

Young Americans for Freedom has a post up responding to the latest example of this at Stony Brook University.  Earlier this year the Student Government at Stony Brook University denied student activity funding to Young Americans for Freedom.  The funding, generally available to a broad spectrum of other student groups was denied YAF because student government made the subjective determination that it is “too similar” to College Republicans.  Of course, this similarity rule was not applied to prevent funding for an array of left wing groups.  Additionally, student government required groups seeking funding to submit a petition showing the signatures of approximately 800 students supporting funding for the group, including their phone number, address, and student ID numbers – a policy that favors popular groups and disfavors groups whose views are more controversial on campus (i.e. conservatism, evangelical Christianity, etc.).    

These policies clearly violate the First Amendment.  Directly applicable decisions of the United States Supreme Court (Southworth) and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals dealing with policies of Stony Brook’s sister-SUNY school (Amidon v. SUNY-Albany) eliminate any doubt about that.  Thus, in response to my letter, counsel for Stony Brook and its USG reviewed their policies, determined they were suspect, and quickly corrected them without any need for litigation.  Everyone should be happy with this result.  The First Amendment is vindicated, YAF gets the same status as other groups, and the parties were even able to work it out without the assistance of the federal judiciary. 

 “Think Progress,” a left wing magazine at Stony Brook, is not happy with this turn of events.  In an article titled: “Club Funding Drops $175,000 Thanks Largely to YAF’s Lawsuit Threat,” the supposedly “progressive” author blames YAF for any reduction in funding to student groups (while burying the lead – that student gov’t increased funding for itself by $250,000 and expects to make up lost club funding in the fall).  The author notes that the policy changes were required by the Supreme Court in Southworth,  quotes USG members explaining that fact, and then cites USG sources identifying that “viewpoint neutrality as the reason for the budget cuts.”  So, to sum up, the USG began complying with the First Amendment due to YAF’s efforts and this has reduced funding for some groups that received more under the previously unconstitutional system.  And the left attacks the group defending the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, this is unsurprising.  After all, student fee systems were created to increase funding for left wing causes and were serving that purpose well at Stony Brook.  And they would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for those meddling YAF kids!

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Senior Counsel - Life

Adams on Adams: The First Amendment Returns to Campus

Posted on April 11th, 2011 Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Back in March of 2010, a federal district court judge in North Carolina ruled that Professor Mike Adams’ columns at were not protected by the First Amendment.  Dr. Adams appealed that decision, gathering support from academic organizations from across the ideological spectrum.  Last week, this effort was blessed with a strong, ringing defense of academic freedom from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.  And so a year after the district court’s opinion, Dr. Adams fittingly announces at today:  “Caution:  This Column Now Protected by the First Amendment.” 

Some told us we should just give up.  Others told us we should simply accept the federal judge’s decision and resign ourselves to the fact that the First Amendment is now dead on our college campuses.  But the Alliance Defense Fund took my case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in January.  And, last week, they issued a landmark defense of First Amendment rights for faculty at public colleges and universities.  For the first time in years, I’m getting love mail from liberals.

And after explaining the Fourth Circuit’s decision in a very easy to understand way (which is well worth reading in its entirety), he puts the entire case in perspective: 

This all means that soon my lawyers with the ADF will go back to court to argue for a trial on the facts of my First Amendment retaliation claim. But thousands of professors in the Fourth Circuit – most of whom do not share my views – have already won a major victory. Their free speech rights once again belong to them as individuals – and not to the state that employs them.

You’re welcome.


ADF Litigation Staff Counsel ADF Center for Academic Freedom

The 2011 Sweet Sixteen of Liberty: Southeast Region

This year’s NCAA Men’s Tournament has been very exciting—so far, seventeen games have been decided by five points or less.  But we know you all have really been saving your excitement for our picks for the rest of the tournament, based on the schools’ commitment to respecting the First Amendment rights of their students.  (The guidelines we’re using are the same that Casey used last year.)  Without further ado, here are the picks for the Southeast Region:

Butler v. Wisconsin

Butler University, a small private school in Indiana, won everyone’s hearts last year as the Cinderella team who made it all the way to the championship game and fought valiantly against the Goliath of the tournament—Duke.  The game came down to a desperation heave by Butler’s Gordon Hayward in the last seconds of the game.  (He missed.)  This year, Butler has already exceeded expectations by taking out Old Dominion in the second round in a two point game, and shocking No. 1 seed Pitt with a one-point nail-biter victory in the third round.

Now, everyone (including me) loves a scrappy underdog.  But does Butler deserve to win?  In 2009, Butler actually sued one of its students for writing an anonymous blog criticizing the school.  Now, it’s bad enough when universities punish students for their protected expression, but actually suing one of your students for money damages?  That is truly absurd. 

Luckily for Butler, however, they are playing the University of Wisconsin, one of the country’s most frequent violators of the First Amendment. 

The ADF Center for Academic Freedom has been litigating against the Badgers since 2006 because of its discriminatory student fee system.  Although the University of Wisconsin told the Supreme Court about ten years ago in the Southworth case that it would distribute student fee funds to all student organizations without viewpoint discrimination, the University more recently claimed that the Establishment Clause required it to eliminate funding for religious student expression.  The University of Wisconsin-Madison selectively denied funding to Badger Catholic, the large Roman Catholic student organization on campus because some of the students’ expressive activities contained too much of what the University defined as “prayer, proselytizing and worship.”   In September 2010, the Seventh Circuit reaffirmed that the Establishment Clause does not require such discrimination against religious student speech.  The court ruled that the University must treat religious student groups equally to nonreligious student groups, in terms of granting them funding for their expression and allowing them space to meet on campus.  The University filed a petition for writ of certiorari, but that was recently denied by the Supreme Court.

Even though Badger Catholic has now ended with a victory, we continue to fight for non-discriminatory distribution of Wisconsin student fees in the CFACT case, the third case we’ve litigated against the University’s Madison campus since 2006.  Our winner should come as no surprise, then.


BYU v. Florida

I’ll try to remain professional and not vindictively pick Florida to lose just because they managed to defeat my Bruins.  But there are plenty of other reasons why Florida is in deep trouble in this match up.

First, there’s the Gators’ red light rating from FIRE.  Among Florida’s numerous red light policies, we have this gem, their civility code:

A university is a place where self-expression, voicing disagreement, and challenging outmoded customs and beliefs are prized and honored. However, all such expressions and challenges need to be civil, manifesting respect and concern for others.

We’ve got no problem with encouraging students to be polite.  Heck, we like to think we’re pretty polite ourselves.  But requiring civility among adults in the storied “marketplace of ideas” is downright unconstitutional.  (The court in our case a few years back at San Francisco State held as much.) 

A friend and former client who shall remain nameless recently referred to Florida as “God’s school.”  But I don’t think the student members of Gator Christian Life and Beta Upsilon Chi (a Christian fraternity) would agree, since they were derecognized by the University simply because they had the audacity to require that their members and leaders actually be Christians, of all things.

Florida is in deep trouble, y’all.

BYU, on the other hand, as a private, religious school, is not rated by FIRE, through they have had a few minor controversies on campus, and appear to limit speech in outdoor areas of the campus.  But this match-up is much closer than it should have been given BYU’s incredibly oppressive policy of prohibiting flip-flops, at least on their Idaho campus.  (Shout out to my colleague Jenna Lorence for pointing this out!)  As someone who probably didn’t even own a pair of socks during my undergrad years, I think that’s just plain un-American!

Oppressed toes aside, BYU really comes nowhere near to the level of constitutional infractions Florida has accumulated. 


Based on the above, it’s clear that the Southeast region’s representative in the Final Four should be BYU.  Butler’s luck in being paired against the University of Wisconsin runs out when compared to a less egregious offender of the First Amendment, and their second chance at a Cinderella season will be over soon.

Go Cougars!

Check out the Sweet Sixteen of Liberty: Southwest Region

Check out the Sweet Sixteen of Liberty: East Region


ADF Legal Counsel - University Project

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