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No changes made to discrimination clause

Robert Singer | Tuesday, March 31, 2009

University of Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., rejected appeals to add sexual orientation to the University’s nondiscrimination clause during a discussion Monday with the leaders of the Campaign for Human Dignity about a petition the group submitted earlier this month.

“From the beginning of the meeting he made it clear that he didn’t want to reconsider the nondiscrimination clause,” Progressive Student Alliance president Bridget Flores said.

Currently, the clause states the University does not discriminate based on “race/ethnicity, color, national origin, sex, disability, veteran status or age.”

University spokesman Dennis Brown provided Jenkins’ rationale for the University’s stand.

“He explained that our reasons for excluding sexual orientation from the nondiscrimination clause remain the same now as in 1997,” Brown said. “That is, after careful analysis from both the legal and theological perspectives, it was determined that adding the clause may not allow us to distinguish between sexual orientation and behavior, which is a distinction that we must maintain as a Catholic university.”

However, Jenkins did say he would be willing to consider alternative ideas to make Notre Dame more welcoming for the GLBTQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning) community, according to Dewey.

“Father Jenkins seemed very open to taking steps to make campus more welcoming for GLBTQ students. He asked us to come up with a list of proposals,” said sophomore Mary Dewey, chair of the campaign.

Flores and Dewey based their argument to Jenkins on the following points: that adding such a clause would not conflict with Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, that the University has a different standard for responding to harassment targeted at GLBTQ students and that the atmosphere on campus currently prevents the University from living up to the principles set forth in its Spirit of Inclusion document.

“We welcome all people, regardless of color, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social or economic class, and nationality for example, precisely because of Christ’s calling to treat others as we deserve to be treated,” according to the Spirit of Inclusion document.

Dewey said they used the document to support their request.

“We wanted to emphasize that the most concrete step the administration could take to live up to the ideals the Spirit of Inclusion represents is to include a nondiscrimination clause [for sexual orientation],” Dewey said. “We presented him examples of clauses form other universities that have sexual discrimination in their nondiscrimination clause, particularly St. Mary’s and Boston College.

“We wanted to give him examples of other Catholic colleges, ways that Notre Dame can still commit to nondiscrimination that are still in line with Catholic values.”

Flores elaborated on how Notre Dame could still retain its Catholic identity by broadening its nondiscrimination clause.

“Notre Dame also says that because of its Catholic character, it holds itself to a standard higher than civil law,” she said. “We think the best way to hold itself to that standard would be to add sexual orientation to the non discrimination clause.”

In presenting her case, Dewey cited a perceived double standard by the University in what described as a weak reaction to students who last year wore inflammatory T-shirts disparaging gay students and a more stern response to racist letters students received.

“There is a discrepancy between the way the University responds to hate speech on the basis of race and the way the University responds to hate speech on the basis of sexual orientation,” she said. “We really wanted to challenge that there really isn’t a welcoming culture for GLBTQ students. In the past, GLBTQ students have felt like the administration hasn’t responded to hate speech and harassment.”

While they haven’t given up on their fight to change the University’s nondiscrimination clause, the leaders of the Campaign for Human Dignity have already responded to Jenkins’ suggestion to form alternative proposals.

Flores listed some ideas she plans to offer University representatives who specialize in discrimination issues.

“Better publicizing of the resources available to GLBTQ students who are victims of harassment and other forms of discrimination, so students can know where they can go, separating the channels where students can report discrimination from dorm life, offering alternatives from going to rectors – a private means by which students can report discrimination – as well as more effective response from the University about discrimination,” she said.

While these ideas would help make the campus more welcoming for all students, broadening the nondiscrimination clause would have more substantial effects, according to the Campaign’s leaders.

“Primarily [the University] would project the idea that it is open and willing to admitting GLBTQ students and that it is consciously trying to make an atmosphere welcoming to students of all sexual orientations,” Flores said.

According to law student Kyle Sommer, there is an apparent inconsistency in the implications of including sexual orientation in the University’s harassment policy but not in its discrimination policy. While the University must respond to verbal abuse targeted at GLBTQ students, it has no legal obligation to ensure that employees are not fired because of their sexual orientation, Sommer said.

“It has ramifications in employment discrimination, in admissions, in scholarships and in athletics,” he said.

The Campaign for Human Dignity will also pursue club recognition for AllianceND and OutreachND.

“We want to work with the University so the Spirit of Inclusion can become a reality,” Dewey said.

On this point, the two sides found common ground.

“Over the past decade, Notre Dame has made significant strides in making the campus more supportive for gay and lesbian students, and we look forward to exploring ways in which we can improve still more,” Brown said.