Tufts University Derecognizes Christian group; Religious Freedom Threatened
An Official Statement of the Senior Leadership of the Tufts Christian Fellowship
On the evening of April 13th at 10:00pm, the Tufts Community Union Judiciary (TCUJ) ruled to derecognize the Tufts Christian Fellowship (TCF) as a campus student organization. This derecognition means that TCF is not able to reserve rooms or notify its members publicly of any meeting on campus or have access to its student organization funding. In the words of the Director of Student Activities, the Tufts Christian Fellowship essentially "does not exist on campus." The ruling, coming a week before the Christian Holy Week, represents a grave threat to religious freedom for all religious groups on campus.
The ruling was in response to TCF's senior leadership's commitment to rely on its religiously based standards in selecting the group's senior, policy-setting leadership. The specific issue at hand concerns the decision of the senior leaders not to invite Julie Catalano into senior leadership in TCF next year because of her stance on homosexual practice. Julie Catalano stated her religious belief that homosexual practice was a biblically acceptable practice for leaders, and requested that TCF senior leaders consider her for a senior leadership position, irrespective of her beliefs or practices on this matter. She wanted the option to pursue a homosexual relationship as a leader; she stated her intention to continue upholding her position while in leadership. For TCF senior leaders to agree to these requests would be to ask them to affirm her religious view although it differed from their own; in essence, asking them to act in a way that would violate their own religious beliefs. Nevertheless, when it appeared that the TCF senior leaders could not agree to her demands, she filed a formal complaint of discrimination against TCF with the TCUJ.
The TCUJ ruling sets a dangerous precedent. On a procedural level, no one from TCF was informed when the TCUJ met to rule on the matter. No one from the TCF leadership was invited to face and answer the accusation that they were practicing discrimination. No one from the TCF leadership was given the opportunity to present in person their case or other evidence. After a brief meeting, with the campus media present and pressing for a decision, the TCUJ voted to immediately strip TCF of the right to exist as a student organization. At a little after midnight, TCF was informed it had lost all student funding and could not meet on campus as a student organization.
But more importantly than the secretive and rushed nature of the judgment, the ruling threatens the freedom of all campus religious groups to practice their respective faiths. The TCF senior leadership's position on homosexual practice does not stem from homophobia. They have consistently affirmed their desire for homosexuals in general and Julie in particular to be members of the group. They affirm the dignity and worth of every human being, created in God's image. They also distinguish between homosexual orientation and homosexual practice.
Far from homophobia, the reason for the senior leadership's position stems from their belief that the Bible must be the final authority on all matters of their lives, including how their group decides about leadership. TCF's religious tradition which might be described by some as "evangelical" or "conservative Christian" believes the Bible is clear on the topic of homosexual practice. It is listed along with a long list of practices that are deemed to not be in accord with God's wishes for human relationships. The TCF senior leaders do not seek to single out homosexuality for discriminatory attention, for their religious beliefs would compel them to apply the same standards on a host of non-sexual issues. Moreover, they recognize that all human beings themselves first and foremost will not always succeed in living by those standards. However, they believe that leaders cannot choose decide to reject those standards as the guiding norm for believers.
While not all who call themselves "Christians" subscribe to their position on homosexual practice, the overwhelmingly predominant Christian tradition over the centuries has held this biblically based position. This belief stems from a widely shared and long-standing religious tradition held by the majority of Christians worldwide, including individuals such as the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, Jimmy Carter, Mother Teresa, and the Pope. Therefore, demanding that we abandon our beliefs on this matter or face derecognition as a student organization is tantamount to demanding that we act against our religious tradition.
The TCUJ has essentially acted to legislate religion on campus. The TCUJ ruling will inevitably lead to all sorts of religious persecution towards numerous groups. We must assume that if the same complaint was brought against other religious groups that hold the same view on homosexual practice and leadership that TCF does, the TCUJ would derecognize those groups as well. If the TCUJ ruling is enforced uniformly and not in a highly selective manner that seeks to discriminate against TCF then they must also prohibit Armenian Orthodox, African American Pentecostals, Korean Baptists and Chinese American Presbyterians, the entire Catholic Church, all Orthodox Jews, and all Muslims from being able to freely practice their religion. Each of those religious traditions holds the same religious belief as TCF that advocates and practitioners of homosexuality should not lead their groups. Representatives of each of those traditions have expressed that the TCUJ ruling, if applied to them, would in effect deny them their religious freedom.
For example, the Islamic Society at Tufts practices segregated worship because of their religious belief in the Koran. Women cannot worship in the same setting as men. Women also cannot lead services. According to the ruling that the TCUJ is enforcing against TCF, the TCUJ must also revoke the Islamic Society's right to exist as a student organization. The Catholic Church clearly teaches against the advocacy of both homosexual practice and abortion. In an exactly parallel case to TCF, suppose the student leaders of the Catholic student group choose by constitutional means not to select a student as a senior, policy-setting leader because that student advocates homosexual practice or abortion. If that student who was not selected appealed to the TCUJ, the TCUJ must also ban the Catholic student group if it was acting consistently and not simply seeking to discriminate against one religious tradition.
Barring religious groups from using religiously based values in leadership selection is the same as prohibiting them from practicing the religious nature of their group. It is a fact that in general, the senior leadership of a group shapes the very beliefs and practices of that group. What if a bunch of white students who cared not a whit about African American issues somehow engineered a takeover of the Pan African Alliance? What if the Democratic Club demanded that they be represented in the Republican Club's executive committee? What if some very liberal student activists insisted that The Primary Source's senior editors must all write the same liberal views which they held? The freedom of groups to live out their beliefs rests in their right to set the criteria for leadership. This is why the TCF constitution has the outgoing senior leadership select next year's leaders. This process of leadership selection was approved by the TCUJ last academic year and is similar to the way in which many student organizations seek to have their group remain consistent with the group's purpose. The reality for TCF is that senior leadership strongly shapes the purpose and guiding beliefs of the group. To compel the senior leadership of TCF to affirm the leadership of someone who advocates and/or practices an active homosexual lifestyle would be to deny us the right to practice our religion.
We believe there is a way out that both avoids denying Julie her right to lead in a Christian group and avoids Tufts becoming a campus that is incredibly religiously intolerant. Julie has the option to lead in the Protestant Student Fellowship, a Christian group on campus which can affirm her theological position. But let TCF exist as an option for those that out of genuine, religious beliefs, disagree with that position. Indeed, TCF seeks to continue the dialogue with Julie and with fellow Christians who hold her position, as fellow members of the Tufts Community.
If the TCUJ, the Tufts administration, and the wider Tufts community allow the derecognition of TCF to stand, all real religious dialogue is threatened. Indeed, all free religious practice is imperiled.