The conservative columnist George Will wrote an article last week criticising Vanderbilt University’s ‘sanction’ against one of its student organisations for its constitution violating the university’s nondiscrimination clause. This was apparently a consequence of one of the university’s fraternities (BYX) expelling members on the basis of their sexual orientation. Central to Will’s argument is the claim that the fraternity — a ‘religious’ one at that — was doing so in order to ‘protect’ its own contribution to Vanderbilt’s diversity (i.e. the very thing that ‘sanction’ underscores).
The organisation, a chapter of the Christian Legal Society, states in its constitution that homosexual practise is ‘biblically forbidden’ and disallows any homosexual members from holding office. Will agrees with the CLS (and Vanderbilt for that matter!) that both this clause and the fraternity’s actions this are based on religious belief and (therefore) good for the diversity Vanderbilt wants to foster.
Yet this begs the question: is sexual orientation a religious belief? Clearly, there are large Christian organisations which disagree with the CLS (e.g. both Presbyterian Church USA and Episcopal Church USA accept the ordination of gay clergy). So it seems difficult to place sexual orientation as a necessary belief for the religion in question (i.e. Christianity). The CLS’s discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation may be against the society’s constitution, or perhaps the beliefs of some Christians (namely, evangelicals), but it doesn’t seem like a truly religious belief. After all, one can be homosexual (or heterosexual for that matter) without any religious beliefs at all! If it were about religious beliefs, the case would be more interesting if the discussion was about a Jewish or Muslim member being barred from holding office in the CLS. There we would have religious beliefs to question.
Instead, what we have is actually a debate on the acceptance of divergent interpretations within the same religious group — i.e. ‘orthodoxy’. The CLS (and perhaps BYX) define ‘Christianity’ in narrow terms and, at least in part, by recent interpretations and issues, rather than by historical theology (even though they may claim such). In the case of BYX, the expulsions were on the grounds of individual practise rather than belief because they expelled practising homosexuals rather than those who believe it to be acceptable. Reducing the issue to belief fails to acknowledge the possibility of diversity because it is an attempt to define religious ‘orthodoxy’ in terms of an exclusive disjunction (i.e. either A or B but not both) based in nonreligious language in a nonreligious environment. Perhaps this is acceptable to Will in his championing of ‘individual rights’, but it is an action which tramples upon the distinction between religious and ‘secular, belief and practise.
Note also that Vanderbilt’s nondiscrimination clause is also not about beliefs but practises – any organisation can believe whatever they want as long as they do not discriminate (a practise) against certain human qualities in appointing their leadership. George Will ignores these distinctions in order to foster a sense of injustice against the ‘rights’ of university-affiliated organisations. What he seems to ignore (or forget) is that Vanderbilt’s policy is no different than the federal government barring non-profit religious organisations from endorsing political candidates — the organisations are free to believe whatever they want as long as their practise is kept in check. Likewise, Vanderbilt’s nnondiscrimination clause is a necessary part for an organisation to affiliate with the university — groups are free to believe what they want as long as their practises do not transgress the affiliation ‘contract’. If BYX or CLS want to discriminate on the grounds of sexual preference (or race, gender, nationality, etc), they can’t do so while affiliated with Vanderbilt University. It’s got nothing to do with religious belief and everything to do with political practise.