Christian Leadership Ministry at Dartmouth Faces Discrimination
Posted August 31, 2012
By Catherine Elvy, Staff Writer for The Ivy League Christian Observer
Members of Dartmouth Faith and Action at Christian Union’s Faith In Action Conference in April.
Students involved in a new Christian leadership development ministry at Dartmouth are discovering that, under the guise of political “correctness,” religious student organizations do not enjoy equal standing with other student groups on their campus.
The undergraduates are pursuing recognition from Dartmouth to form a ministry via the college’s Council on Student Organizations. Status as a student organization comes with a variety of benefits, including a small amount of funding from the college and the ability to participate in activity fairs, reserve space on campus, and request funding.
In May, the Council on Student Organizations voted 5-4 against granting recognition to Dartmouth Faith and Action because its bylaws require leaders to be Christians, a measure the student-led council considered too exclusive. However, the vote was not as close as it may appear; even council members who cast their ballot in favor of recognition added an extraordinary condition: that the faith-based organization would not require its leaders to be themselves professing Christians.
The students representing Dartmouth Faith and Action expressed dismay that religious organizations at Dartmouth are not free to align their leadership with the mission and values for which the organization stands.
“We could have compromised, but we’re standing with our beliefs,” said Ian Chaffin ’15, president of Dartmouth Faith and Action (DFA).
The fledgling organization, supported and resourced by Christian Union, will again seek recognition in the fall.
“We’re facing tricky arguments,” said Chaffin of the council’s discriminatory demand, which singles out faith-based groups from other student groups on Dartmouth’s campus. In fact, the organizational council has granted recognition to a variety of clubs that necessitate uncompromising commitment to the key issues that define them, including Atheists, Humanists, Agnostics at Dartmouth; College Democrats; and College Libertarians. Furthermore, the council has granted recognition to a variety of performing groups that require auditions for membership, let alone leadership.
Documents on the organizational council’s Web site do not indicate requirements or restrictions for club officers other than one specifying they must be Dartmouth undergraduates. However, application documents state participation in college clubs “shall be open to all members of the Dartmouth Community without regard to race, color, creed, sex, physical ability, sexual orientation, or national origin.”
Membership in DFA is open to all students, regardless of their religious convictions.
Earlier in the year, students involved in DFA were troubled to learn the university discriminates against religious organizations by segregating them and requiring separate approval for them through The William Jewett Tucker Foundation. Tucker’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life recognizes 20-plus campus ministries and their ministers.
However, students with DFA decided to instead seek recognition through the Council on Student Organizations as it conveys official status to the overwhelming majority of campus organizations. More importantly, Tucker requires faith-based clubs to follow more restrictive guidelines than other clubs, including stringent restrictions on advertising, and preventing religious clubs from giving out free materials, such as Christian books.
Although leaders of the organizational council initially told DFA students to pursue recognition through Tucker, Anna Hall, Dartmouth’s associate director of the Collis Center for Student Involvement, eventually permitted the students to present their case for recognition to the council. Along with a series of delays to their request, students said Hall also declined clarification on questions tied to recognition procedures.
Not surprisingly, DFA student leaders described the environment during their presentation to the organizational council as adversarial and even hostile. The council debated privately for about 30 minutes before issuing a decision.
“If students are not allowed to form peaceful, legal communities on campus that preserve their most deeply held beliefs and practices, then pluralism at Dartmouth has failed,” said Kevin Collins (Harvard ’89), the Christian Union’s ministry director at Dartmouth.
“Christian organizations should have the right to require their leaders to believe and follow the Christian principles and goals of their organization based on the free exercise clause in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
DFA’s struggle is reminiscent of the lengthy battle Princeton Faith and Action faced to achieve status as a student organization at Princeton University. Princeton Faith and Action (PFA) is a leadership development ministry supported and resourced by Christian Union.
In 2005, PFA was recognized after three years of being arbitrarily denied status and after finally enlisting the support of a national civil rights group.
Earlier, when student leaders of PFA approached the student government for recognition, they were told they needed approval from the dean of the Office of Religious Life because their organization was religious in nature. PFA leaders were given that hurdle, even though no such requirement existed for secular organizations.
Ultimately, after the Foundation for Individual Rights (FIRE) wrote to the university, reminding it of its stated commitments to freedom of religion and association, PFA received recognition.
In its letter to Princeton, Philadelphia-based FIRE called the university’s actions “inexcusable at one of the nation’s leading liberal arts institutions.” The letter also noted the “apparently arbitrary method of decision-making simply cannot be reconciled with Princeton’s promises.”
Princeton pledged to re-examine its policy, which appeared to unfairly single out religious student organizations for additional and exceptional scrutiny. In her written response, President Shirley M. Tilghman reaffirmed the right of religious student groups to peaceful, lawful assembly.
After the denial of recognition at Dartmouth in May, a concerned alumnus from Cornell wrote his university to make sure it was not adhering to a discriminatory leadership policy.
The director of Cornell United Religious Work (CURW), Rev. Kenneth Clarke, Sr., assured the alumnus that Cornell has not engaged in censorship.
Three years ago, the Chi Alpha chapter at Cornell was temporarily de-funded after a student who identified himself as “homosexual” was asked to step down from leadership. Following a review by the university’s legal counsel, it was determined that Chi Alpha was free to decide who would constitute their leadership based on their religious convictions. According to Rev. Clarke, that right is also guaranteed in the Cornell United Religious Work (CURW) Covenant.
Buoyed by these encouraging affirmations of equal rights for religious groups from other leading universities, the DFA students are not giving up their effort to gain recognition.
“We are going to hit the ground running in the fall,” said Tanya Budler ’15, vice president.
Taylor Stevens ’15, treasurer, agreed. “We have learned the importance of ultimately giving the entire situation to God,” she said.