We are all aware of the recent ruling of the Health and Human Services that all non-exempt private health insurance plans must provide coverage for all FDA approved contraception methods, sterilization, counseling and education. Even though the President has softened his position a bit by requiring the insurance companies, rather than the religious institutions, to pay for the plans, these institutions will still have to require all their employees to sign up. The Obama Administration has picked a lulu of a fight with the Roman Catholic Church on its stand that contraception, including the abortion-inducing “morning after” pill, is morally wrong.
But what about Vandy? The administration of what has been voted the 51st best university in the U.S.A. has just issued a ruling that religious organizations such as the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (a student-run, on-campus Christian fellowship) cannot insist that leaders elected to office in their organization conform to standards of behavior deemed consistent with their Christian witness. The underlying issue, of course, is homosexuality. Can IVCF-Vanderbilt insist that its executive committee include only members who affirm the group’s core belief that homosexual behavior is morally wrong? The University’s current ruling apparently is that it cannot.
Now let’s see what some of the implications are for these two decisions that seem so far apart, but yet are so closely related.
On the surface this is a case of one person’s rights being pitted against another person’s rights. If you judge on a Machiavellian scale that might makes right, then whichever group has the most power wins. Hence the current Administration insists that they are not going to back down. Catholic hospitals, hostels, service agencies, charities must provide health care policies to their employees that cover practices the Church considers wrong. If they do not, they will pay a hefty fine. The rights of non-Catholic, or non-practicing Catholic employees – as the Administration sees it — trump the rights of the Church that has established the institution they work for.
But what of Vanderbilt? They have pitted the rights of those who hold liberal views on sex against the rights of a faith-based organization to conduct its affairs in accordance with its member’s consciences. However, the decision goes far beyond just an Evangelical student group that wants to be faithful to its understanding of the plain teaching of the Bible. On the University’s line of thinking there can be no reason why a Christian should not have a right to hold office in a Muslim student group, a Protestant in a Catholic group, A Jew in a Christian group – or for that matter, a self-confessed gambling addict to hold office in any of the above? Should universities have the right to insist that their own views of inclusivity compel every student group to welcome office holders whose beliefs and lifestyles are objectionable to the group? Apparently Vandy thinks so.
At the root of both of these issues is the question of religious freedom. How compelling are the rights of those with whom we disagree (on any number of issues)? Can we be compelled to violate our consciences because other people’s sensitivities are offended?
In a curious twist, only a few years ago the Muslim student chaplain at Vanderbilt said publicly that homosexuals could rightfully be executed. He did not qualify his remarks, and therefore his remarks were taken to refer not only to homosexuals in Muslim countries, but also here. Seeking to be tolerant, I assume, the University’s only response to this incredible statement was to quickly distance itself from the chaplain in question by saying that he was not an employee of the University, and that the University’s own views precluded this sort of discrimination. A rather mild slap on the wrist, it seems to me. Similarly, the University permits Wiccan students to be absent during classes on specific holidays relevant to their religion. For Vanderbilt tolerance appears to be selective.
All of this reminds me of the famous statement that came out of World War II. Protestant Pastor, Martin Niemoller said: “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
The current flap against the Roman Catholic teaching is, of course, not directed solely against them. That is why the National Association of Evangelicals, Focus on the Family, the Assemblies of God, Eastern Mennonite University, even some Jewish groups have all protested against this contraceptive mandate – most of which do not agree, of course, with the Roman Church’s views on contraception.
These two actions are aimed simply and solely at turning people of faith into second-class citizens. They are provoking people like you and me to write a remarkable new page in the history of American conscientious objection. In the coming months and years will we be willing stand up and say “We cannot, and we will not, comply with these unjust rulings?”
I have written to the admissions department and the chancellor’s office of Vanderbilt asking for a clarification of their ruling. I have had no response. I am committed to standing with Evangelicals on the one hand and Roman Catholics on the other in the current struggle over freedom of religion in America. Are you?
~ Peter C. Moore, D.D.