NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Vanderbilt University has hired a chaplain in the hopes of ending a lingering controversy over its non-discrimination policy.
The “all-comers” policy at the school requires student groups to allow any student to join their groups and to hold office, regardless of their beliefs. (Note: The Legislature passed a bill last session intended to stop the policy, but it was vetoed by Gov. Bill Haslam.)
Vanderbilt reviewed all of its student groups for compliance with the policy after a gay student complained of being thrown out of a Christian fraternity. Since then, Christian groups have protested and several lost their official status for refusing to sign on to the policy.
The university announced on Wednesday that the Rev. Mark Forrester would be its chaplain and director of religious life beginning on Sept. 1. The Tennessean (http://tnne.ws/NkJm9g) reports that one of his first tasks will be to meet with groups that lost their status.
The Rev. John Sims-Baker, who advises the Vanderbilt Catholic student group, which lost its status after not signing on to the policy, had a positive reaction to the move.
“It is a godsend,” said Sims-Baker. “When I heard the news, I was surprised and delighted.”
The school had done away with the title of chaplain in 2008 when its office of religious life was reorganized. Sims-Baker said reinstating the title is “really important” in showing that the school recognizes the importance of religion on campus.
Forrester, who has served at Vanderbilt as a Methodist minister for 18 years, said he thinks the school supports the spiritual lives of its students.
“I think we have a very open place for all kinds of religious expression and I want to maintain that,” he said.
He said he would work to get religious groups on campus more focused on meeting the spiritual needs.
“I believe that we can move beyond this immediate crisis and we can get back to work,” he said.
He said religious beliefs are important, but his focus will be on building relationships.
“One of my mentors, William Sloan Coffin, always said that the integrity of love always goes ahead of the purity of dogma,” he said. “That really sums up my approach.”