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Gay-rights movement revs up at Notre Dame
by Chuck Colbert
2012-04-18

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It needs to get better.

That's the message of a two-and-a-half minute video calling for approval of a gay-straight alliance ( GSA ) and the adoption of a non-discrimination policy that is inclusive of sexual orientation at one of the nation's most visible Catholic universities, a school with a large base of alumni, including gay ones, in Chicago.

The video hammers away, gently, at the need for change on the South Bend, Ind., campus, where for more than a decade efforts at securing legal protections for LGBTQ students, faculty and staff have fallen short.

And with the reach of social media and a reinvigorated push—now organized under the banner of the 4 to 5 movement—student and leaders and gay alumni have hopes that school administrators will at least approve the GSA by the end of the school year, while readily acknowledging that adding a non-discrimination clause may take longer.

"The 4 to 5 movement is the largest coalition for LGBT rights at Notre Dame in history," said alumnus Liam Dacey, past chair of Gay & Lesbian Alumni of Notre Dame and St. Mary's College ( GALA-ND/SMC ) .

"It has brought together students, faculty, staff and alumni, and the community in a unified way to tell the administration that they are not doing nearly enough to serve LGBT people," he added.

Indeed, social media has raised the profile of the 4 to 5 movement well beyond South Bend. Loyola University of Chicago's student government, for example, passed a resolution of "solidarity" with Notre Dame's LGBTQ community in its efforts.

Students at the Catholic University of America, based in Washington, D.C., have produced a similar video and formed a coalition with Notre Dame advocates of non-discrimination and an officially approved GSA for their school.

At both institutions, students have submitted applications seeking official status for GSAs. A decision is expected at Notre Dame no later than May 1.

Meanwhile, the push is on as LGBTQ Fighting Irish and allies persist in a direct appeal for full respect and equality.

At the same time, any number of other Catholic colleges and universities offer legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation and/or allow self-governing student groups, including Boston College, Georgetown University, DePaul University and Santa Clara University, among others.

Georgetown and DePaul also have LGBTQ resource centers. Last fall Georgetown's center received a $1 million gift to fund an LGBTQ life initiative.

And yet, back in South Bend, "15 times, Notre Dame has denied official club status to a gay-straight alliance," says one undergraduate who appears on a "It Needs to Get Better" video posted on YouTube; so far, the video has gotten more than 20,000 hits.

"A GSA would lead to a long and overdue welcoming environment that students have struggled for year after year," he adds.

"Notre Dame remains the only top-20 university without a gay-straight alliance and without a nondiscrimination clause," another student says on camera.

"Notre Dame is always at the top of LGBT unfriendly colleges list," says Joanna Whitfield of Palatine, Ill., a senior majoring in mechanical engineering.

"Notre Dame's Catholic identity doesn't preclude it from these changes," explains yet another student, adding, "Many other Catholic colleges, including our sister school, St. Mary's [ College ] recognize a GSA and include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination clauses."

"So, listen up Father Jenkins," says Alex Coccia of Columbus, Ohio, a sophomore majoring in Africana and peace studies.

The Rev. John J. Jenkins, C.S.C., is university president.

"Listen up, board of trustees, student body, faculty and staff, alumni," others add. "It needs to get better."

Coccia and Whitfield—both of whom identify as straight allies—are leaders of the 4 to 5 Movement, which they said recently during recent telephone interviews resulted from membership in the Progressive Student Alliance ( PSA ) , an officially sanctioned student group advocating progressive principles, politics, and activism at Notre Dame.

Coccia serves as co-president of PSA, with Whitfield as vice president.

Last year, Brian Sims—a former college football team captain who is openly gay—gave them the idea of 4 to 5 when progressive students hosted him as a speaker on campus, Whitfield explained.

Sims, a Philadelphia Democrat, is a candidate for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

In his talk, Sims pointed to overwhelming majority support for gay rights among young people.

"Statistics supported by the Pew Forum from a national youth survey found that among 18-to-30 year-olds with a college education, four out of five support the general package of gay civil rights," explained Coccia.

"When they are polled," however, he continued, "only one-third think their peers agree."

"So an 80-percent majority thinks it's a 30-percent minority," Coccia said.

"That's the same dynamic at Notre Dame," he said, explaining, "Those allies who are the majority are either overwhelmed by the voices of opposition or structures in place make it seem as though they are not the majority.

For Coccia and Whitfield, the in-the-minority mentality is simply unacceptable.

"It keeps allies from getting involved. It hinders people from coming out. It hinders people from speaking what they believe," he said.

Worse yet, "it breeds a culture of silence," said Coccia.

The legacy undergraduates have generational ties to Notre Dame. Whitfield's grandfather is an alumnus from the 1950s and Coccia's father graduated in the 1970s.

"I've gone to Catholic schools my whole life," said Coccia, who considers Notre Dame to be a "family" and "community."

It's "hypocritical," he went on to say, "that a university that stresses Christian values and loving your neighbor would not protect people on a legal basis because of their sexual orientation. It is insincere to say that someone is loved and welcomed as part of the community, but that that person will not be legally protected."

Mary Rose D'Angelo, an associate professor of New Testament theology at Notre Dame, agrees that there is room for legal-protection measures and an officially approved GSA. In a recent letter to the editor of the student newspaper, she wrote, "Catholic teaching does not preclude measures like the GSA and the non-discrimination clause; indeed, it would seem to require them."

According to its mission statement, the GSA would, if approved, "serve as a peer-to-peer interaction-based student club/gay-straight alliance, where GLBTQ students and allies can work together to 'create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good' as outlined in Notre Dame's mission statement."

The GSA would not be an advocacy organization.

Additionally, "A GSA would provide social support for GLBTQ students without isolating them, as well as a significant complement to classroom learning, and would be a venue for student-led effort to assure that GLBTQ students are, in the words of the Catechism [ of the Catholic Church ] 'accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,'" D'Angelo explained.

"Equally important is the Catechism's stipulation that 'Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided,'" she added.

"Endorsing the capacity of gay and straight students ( and associated faculty ) to organize around sexual identity and adding sexual orientation to the non- discrimination are two essential steps toward fulfilling the moral mandate the Catechism articulates," D'Angelo's letter concluded.

Among those who disagree is Jenkins, the current president, and his predecessor, the Rev. Edward A. Malloy, C.S.C., who have relied on Catholic Church doctrine and legal concerns as bases for a non-inclusive policy.

"Our rationale for not adding sexual orientation to the non-discrimination policy clause has for the last 12 years been our unwillingness to leave to civil courts the interpretation of university decisions that are made the basis of Church teaching on sexual orientation and conduct," wrote Jenkins in April 2011 to GALA-ND/SMC's Dacey.

Two years earlier, Malloy wrote, "Within society at large, the phrase 'sexual orientation' sometimes becomes a term that does not admit of distinction between sexual orientation and the manner in which people live out their sexual orientation—a distinction that is critical to us as a Catholic institution."

The two presidents may have a point, says Marc. R. Poirier, a professor at the Seton Hall University School of Law.

"There is a paragraph in Christian Legal Society [ CLS ] v. Martinez that would worry me very much if I were a religious group seeking to draw a distinction between status and conduct and maintain it in the face of an anti-discrimination principle that included sexual orientation," he said.

"It appears to me that is what the president of Notre Dame is referring to," said Poirier.

CLS v. Martinez is a 2010 United States Supreme Court case ( decided 5-4 ) , penned by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In a win for LGBT rights, the high court ruled that religious beliefs may not always trump non-discrimination policies.

The case involved the Christian Legal Society at Hastings Law School, a public institution, where the group sought to exclude gay people from membership and from holding office. Hastings had a non-discrimination policy and refused to recognize the CLS group unless it admitted gays.

"The court rejected the CLS's argument that the group could exclude homosexuals on the basis of conduct," said Poirier. "It held that Hastings' anti-discrimination policy protecting LGBT folks would prevail over a CLS policy requiring celibacy."

Ginsburg held that exclusion on the basis of sexual conduct was tantamount to discrimination on the basis of status as homosexual.

"So based on this paragraph, there would appear to be a risk, if an educational institution had both a non-discrimination policy including sexual orientation and a policy requiring celibacy outside of marriage, and also doctrinally limited marriage to opposite sex couples, that the anti-discrimination policy would be read by the court to trump the celibacy policy," Poirier said.

"To be sure, in other contexts courts have given the status/conduct distinction weight, but not in the circumstances of CLS v. Martinez," said Poirier.

Notre Dame's campus advocacy for a self-governing student group and legal protections comes at a time when the South Bend City Council approved a measure by a vote of 6-3 that provided protections for residents from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Notre Dame is not located, save a building, within city limits. And yet, Coccia termed the vote "fantastic," adding, "It gives us a lot of motivation, too."

University spokesperson Dennis Brown, an assistant vice president of Public Information and Communications, said in e-mail correspondence, "We have received material related to a gay straight alliance and sexual orientation in the non-discrimination clause—as well as many other requests—from concerned students and are not making any comments until we've had the opportunity to thoroughly review and evaluate the material and then respond directly to them. We believe they deserve that courtesy."

Brown added, "That said, as articulated in the Spirit of Inclusion, we welcome and value all members of our community, we condemn discriminatory harassment of any kind, and our policy explicitly precludes harassment based on sexual orientation."

The Spirit of Inclusion statement to which Brown refers dates back more than a decade when then president Malloy wrote in it, "We choose not to change our legal non-discrimination clause, but we call ourselves to act in accord with what we regard as a higher standard—Christ's call to inclusiveness, coupled with the gospel's call to live chaste lives."

Nonetheless, 4 to 5 movement Whitfield sees room for improvement. "The Spirit of Inclusion is a nice step for the university to take towards creating a welcoming environment, but the statement has no legal meaning. How can the campus environment be open and welcoming if the university doesn't offer a group of people protection from discrimination?"

Advocates for change at Notre Dame point to St. Mary's College, "where policies, practices, and procedures are administered in a manner consistent with our Catholic identity," according to the school's policy on equal employment opportunity.

The policy also states, "With the foregoing understanding, Saint Mary's College will not engage in discrimination based on gender, race, national origin, religion, age, mental or physical disability, all as provided by law. Based on Catholic values, the College also commits to avoiding discrimination based on sexual or political orientation."

Gwen O'Brien, the school's media relations director, said in e-mail correspondence, "The Straight and Gay Alliance ( SAGA ) is one of the college's approved organizations. SAGA's purpose is to provide students opportunities to openly discuss and question how they may best live their lives as sexual beings within the framework of Catholic teaching."

SAGA is self-governing, is open to all students, has a constitution and elects officers—the same as any other student organization—with one caveat, said O'Brien: "SAGA cannot serve as an advocacy group."

GALA-ND/SMC's Dacey applauds the advances at Notre Dame's sister school. "Right now it is getting better at St. Mary's, but we aren't seeing the same sort of progress at Notre Dame," he said. "How can this be viewed as anything but one big Catholic hypocrisy?"

A 1978 graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Chuck Colbert is a co-founder of GALA-ND/SMC and a former co-chair of the organization, which is not affiliated with the Notre Dame Alumni Association.

� Copyright. Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.


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