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Buzz continues at Notre Dame as graduation nears
by Chuck Colbert

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No drama, no trauma.

That's what school officials at the University of Notre Dome are banking on as more than 2,000 students receive their degrees this weekend (May 19-20) on the South Bend, Ind., campus.

Undoubtedly, school administrators are relieved that President Barack Obama, with his recent move to support same-sex marriage, is not this year's commencement speaker.

Three years ago, the conferral of an honorary law degree and Obama commencement remarks created a media stir and ruffled feathers of conservative alumni and protesting pro-life activists outraged over his pro-choice views.

Conservative alumni concerned about preserving Notre Dame's Catholic identity even formed a non-profit organization in 2006, called the Sycamore Trust, and participated in demonstrating against Obama's 2009 visit to campus.

Unlike three years ago, protests from progressive students, alumni, or others are unlikely even as recent gay-rights push, under the banner of a 4 to 5 Movement moniker, made headlines locally and beyond.

Graduating seniors are expected to wear 4 to 5 Movement buttons, however, according to Facebook postings.

And Notre Dame's graduation ceremonies are not without political and ecclesiastical overtones of significance in Chicago and Illinois, with Archbishop Wilton Gregory, leader of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and Kevin Hasson, founder and president of the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, set to receive honorary degrees. Hasson is a 1979 graduate of Notre Dame.

Some Catholic Church observers believe Gregory is under consideration by the Vatican to replace Chicago's Cardinal Francis George upon his expected any-day-now retirement.

The anti-gay Beckett Fund defended Illinois Catholic Charities over its discriminatory policies in refusing to provide adoption and foster-care services to same-sex couples.

Based in Washington, D.C., the non-profit Beckett Fund is a "private interest law firm defending the freedom of religion for people of all faiths," according to its mission statement.

Just in time for commencement 2012, Notre Dame has recently said it will not add sexual orientation to the university's non-discrimination clause at the same time a university spokesperson said approval of a gay-straight student alliance group (GSA) have all been put on hold.

"We received a thoughtful and well-crafted application for official club status for a gay-straight alliance," said Dennis Brown, an assistant vice president for public information and communications, in e-mail correspondence.

"We have come to the conclusion that, in light of a good deal of discussion in recent weeks, it would be best for us to review the breadth of structures and services currently provided to gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning students and their allies in an effort to make the best decisions possible to support our students and the campus community as a whole—all within the context of Catholic teaching," said Brown.

"As a result, we will continue to consider the application for a gay-straight alliance while we undertake that review, and defer a decision until early in the fall semester," he said.

The good deal of discussion to which Brown was referring resulted from campus-wide efforts to make Notre Dame more LGBT friendly and provide legal protections for students, faculty, and staff.

An "It Needs to Get Better" video—posted on YouTube, with more than 20,000 views so far—spurred renewed conversation and advocacy for a sexual orientation non-discrimination policy and an official gay/straight student organization, an effort now more than 15 years old.

Notre Dame sophomore Alex Coccia, a leader of the 4 to 5 Movement, voiced hope over the deferred decision on the GSA.

"I am very encouraged by the deferral of the decision on the gay-straight alliance until the fall," he said. "This is the first time that such a decision has been made and that the club has not been denied outright upon application."

Added Coccia, "It is important to note as well that the decision on the gay-straight alliance is part of a broader review of the structures and services available at Notre Dame for the LGBTQ community and their allies."

Advocacy of an officially recognized GSA, said Coccia, "is "not the end of our path towards inclusion of LGBTQ community and allies but is a substantial and necessary means towards that end."

In e-mail correspondence, Brown provided additional information surrounding the decision not to add legal protections to the school's employment non-discrimination clause.

"It is very important to us that our faculty, students and staff not only feel comfortable here, but that they know that, if necessary, they have access to a full range of remedies, including legal remedies, if they are wronged because of their sexual orientation, race, religion or other characteristics," said Brown.

He added, "We believe that those protections are embodied in our harassment policy and in the Academic Articles' prohibition against bias and discrimination. Unlike the great majority of Catholic colleges and universities that have added sexual orientation to their non-discrimination clause, neither our state nor local governments require Notre Dame or other institutions to do so."

"The nature of the legal commitment involved in voluntarily including sexual orientation in the non-discrimination clause would be unclear and—given the litigious nature of our society—likely decided in the context of lawsuits, and there would be no assurance that a civil court would respect important distinctions in Catholic moral teaching."

In explaining Notre Dame's rationale, Brown invoked the university's "Sprit of Inclusion" statement, which he said, "articulates our commitment to welcome gay and lesbian members of our community. We strongly reaffirm the ideals articulated in this statement and, in the weeks ahead, we will consider how we can even more fully live up to them."

"We will work to heighten campus awareness of the Spirit of Inclusion's foundational message of respect and welcome, and underscore its explicit condemnation of harassing or discriminatory behavior," said Brown.

And in one of Notre Dame's strongest statements to date about harassment and discrimination, he said, "First and foremost, Notre Dame does not discriminate and does not tolerate harassment against any individual on the basis of personal characteristics or qualities—including sexual orientation.

"Our discriminatory harassment policies specifically provide that such conduct can and will be punished."

Still, the Spirit of Inclusion provides cold comfort to alumna Lisa Karle, a former secretary of Gay & Lesbian Alumni of Notre Dame and St. Mary's College (GALA-ND/SMC).

"First of all, the very existence of the Spirit of Inclusion has always seemed somewhat degrading to me," she said, adding, "I want to be treated equally and valued as a human being; I don't appreciate it when that document is used in an effort to conceal institutional discrimination."

Karle also said associations with her alma mater remain "bittersweet."

As she explained, "My favorite spot on campus is the Sacred Heart statue on God's quad. On it, Jesus' own words are inscribed, 'Venite ad me omnes,' Latin for 'Come to me, all of you!'"

For Karle, "That represents true inclusion and the standard to which I hold my alma mater," she said.

In response to an e-mail question about a censorship policy of the Notre Dame Magazine, Brown declined to address how the classnotes section policy of banning use of the word marriage in acknowledging same-sex civil wedlock, fits with the Spirit of Inclusion.

It was Allyn Amato's letter to the editor of the magazine earlier this spring that first brought light to the block-out policy. In noting Amato and his husband Mark Montel's marriage in the District of Columbia, magazine editors changed the word marriage to "united in a ceremony."

Brown also declined to address how the university reaches out outreach LGBT alumni and what steps Notre Dame takes to acknowledge, let alone celebrate her gay sons and daughters.

And yet, during reunion weekend (Saturday, June 2) the Notre Dame Alumni Association is scheduled to hold an hour-long panel discussion entitled "Current Gay and Lesbian Life at Notre Dame and St Mary's: How Has It Changed?"

Panelists include current students, faculty, staff and alumni, including openly gay ones such as Chicago-based Brad Mattan, a 2008 alumnus.

In fact, one of Notre Dame's most famous alumni is Tom Dooley, the world-famous Navy doctor, who while serving in Southeast Asia provided medical care to countless people. Dooley died in 1961.

In researching his book, the late gay journalist and author Randy Shilts discovered that Dooley was gay and outed him in the 1993 book Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the United States Military.

Dooley is not the only gay Notre Dame alumnus with a military background who has achieved a measure of notoriety.

Another is retired Air Force veteran Victor Fehrenbach. A lieutenant colonel, Fehrenbach served with three combat tours and 88 combat missions as an aviator in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For years, Fehrenbach fought discharge proceedings under the now-defunct "don't ask, don't tell" policy that barred openly gay service, and was a frequent guest on the Rachel Maddow Show.

In October 2010 Fehrenbach returned to Notre Dame to receive GALA's Distinguished Alumni Award.

While the "Spirit of Inclusion is welcome," Fehrenbach emailed, it is "a tiny step for the administration," a "half measure at best."

Fehrenbach also said Notre Dame is copping out by claiming no state laws or local ordinances require the university to provide legal protections.

That justification, he said, "Is perhaps the most troubling part of the university's official position."

It's "pure cowardice, hiding behind the lack of legal requirement," said Fehrenbach.

As he explained, "When Father Hesburgh marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., in the fight for civil rights, he didn't wait for laws to change to be required to do so. Father Hesburgh led because it was the right thing to do, it was the Christian thing to do."

"Notre Dame's administration is clearly not following Christ in this case," said Fehrenbach. "There is a choice for Notre Dame policy makers," he added, suggesting that school officials ought to "follow the teaching and example of Jesus Christ" and not Vatican "dogma" on homosexuality.

Added Fehrenbach, "I hope my university that I love makes the right choice."

�Copyright. Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.

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