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Neither spiritual nor inclusive

Darryl Campbell | Sunday, March 29, 2009

Today, student members of the Campaign for Human Dignity are meeting with Fr. Jenkins to discuss the treatment of, and official policy toward, Notre Dame’s gay and lesbian students and employees. Whenever the topic comes up, the Notre Dame administration invariably plays its trump card: The Spirit of Inclusion statement, issued in 1997, which states that the members of the Notre Dame community “prize the uniqueness of all persons,” “value gay and lesbian members of this community,” “condemn harassment of any kind” and “consciously create an environment of mutual respect, hospitality and warmth.” Alongside the statement, the University published an open letter to the Notre Dame community (which is no longer included in “DuLac” but which can be found on the Office of Institutional Equity’s Web site). It argued first that a legally binding clause would prevent Notre Dame from carrying out Catholic teaching, and that because “neither federal nor state law mandates that sexual orientation be included in nondiscrimination clauses … like a number of other institutions, our clause does not currently include sexual orientation.”

Now, I’m no expert in the intersection of Catholic teaching and university policy, so others can debate whether adding “sexual orientation” would undermine Notre Dame’s educational mission in the abstract; I leave that debate to others. But the Statement of Inclusion and open letter show that the Notre Dame administration has no measurable interest in addressing the concerns of the gay and lesbian members of the Notre Dame family.

First, the “number of other institutions” that didn’t include a sexual orientation clause in their non-discrimination clause has dwindled since 1997. Nearly 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, as does the State of Indiana, as of a 2004 governor’s policy statement. Other colleges and universities now have a legally-binding statement in some form or another, including several of Notre Dame’s peer institutions (Duke, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Stanford, Brown) and athletic rivals (Michigan, Penn State, USC). Even other Catholic institutions have followed suit: Duquesne University added sexual orientation to its clause last year and Boston College released a Notice of Non-Discrimination in 2005 that prohibits “discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation” after acknowledging that its previous policy was “not welcoming enough.” Notre Dame, meanwhile, remains obstinate.

Equally indefensible is the platitudinous, pat-yourself-on-the-back language of the Statement and letter. We are invited to prize, value and welcome all people, to condemn harassment and create a welcoming environment, out of which “the spirit of inclusion … flows from ou[r] character.” We are urged, implicitly, to be a community “founded on justice and love” and to include “all persons of good will.” In other words, we are supposed to think and feel very strongly and sincerely about the issue, but to never act on those warm fuzzy thoughts – yay, team, I know we can do it.

Underneath all this talk of principles is the University’s worry about lawsuits. Although the Spirit of Inclusion does not mention it once, the open letter raises the specter of governmental and judicial overreach. This litigious bugbear is why the University encourages us to see homosexual students for more than just their sexual orientation, which is just one particular aspect of their character, but does the opposite in its official stance. It is also why the University administration is afraid to affirm the dignity of some of its students and staff in its official policy. The real issue is not principles; if Notre Dame adds “sexual orientation” to its clause, and has to take its case to court, it would cost a lot of money even if the University won. So Notre Dame gives out what is essentially a non-response to the issue, leaving the treatment of homosexuals as a perennial, non-“Vagina Monologue” political hot potato that always seems to get passed off. In other words, gay and lesbian students are, literally, not worth the trouble.

And so the University continues to rely on this flawless piece of bureaucratic rhetoric. It appeals to our collective conscience on the one hand while committing to continued inaction on the other. It is designed to give the reader a sense of complacent well-being and to discourage critical thought about what it actually says and does. It insists that homosexuals are equally valued members in the community but refuses to give them the same legal protection that everyone else gets. It is, to quote George Orwell, a document designed “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” By continuing to fall back on the statement, Notre Dame is not saying that it has done all it can, only that it has done all it cares to do. Such is Notre Dame’s “Spirit of Inclusion.”

Darryl Campbell is a second-year graduate student in History. He can be reached at dcampbe6@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.