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Living up to the “Spirit of Inclusion” at ND

Alex Coccia | Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Acceptance comes from both the top down and at the individual level. To truly create a spirit of inclusion at Notre Dame, there are things that both students and the administration can do. The administration must add “sexual orientation” to the nondiscrimination clause. True, these are just words. But words send a powerful message. Certainly the University does not condone violence or harassment towards gay, lesbian or transgendered students, but the lack of “sexual orientation” in the nondiscrimination clause seems inconsistent with these beliefs. Second, the University should begin a course selection on Queer Studies.

Queer Studies would enable the students of Notre Dame to educate themselves further about the nature of homosexuality, would provide the administration a forum to thoroughly teach the Church’s position on homosexuality, and it would enable students to decide for themselves their opinion after being thoroughly taught about the issue. Third, students can become active in the CORE Council on campus. Heterosexual students can become Allies, standing up for the rights of their fellow students.

This year, the students of Notre Dame have another opportunity to stand for the dignity and respect due to all persons, including gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered students. This opportunity is presented in fighting for “sexual orientation” to be added to the nondiscrimination clause. When shirts were worn last year saying, “Gay? Fine by me,” opponents wore shirts saying, “Gay? Go to Hell.” The University quickly responded saying that it did not tolerate such a horrific remark. However, when it came time for the petition for “sexual orientation” to be included in the nondiscrimination clause, the University rejected it. One wonders if these T-shirts would have been made had the phrase already been included.

The petition for “sexual orientation” to be added to the nondiscrimination clause is nothing new. The Officers of the University issued a letter to the Notre Dame community on Aug. 27, 1997, addressing the issue and laying out the University’s reasoning for not adding “sexual orientation” to the nondiscrimination clause:

1. “The church distinguishes between homosexuality as an orientation and sexual activity between homosexual persons. The church teaches that homosexual orientation in a person is neither sinful nor evil. The call of the gospels is a call to inclusiveness.”

2. “The Church also teaches that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are called to live chaste lives in accordance with their vocations … Neither heterosexual union outside the permanent bond of marriage nor homosexual union is morally acceptable.”

3. “We deplore harassment of any kind as antithetical to the nature of this community as a Christian community. Our discriminatory harassment policy specifically precludes harassment based on sexual orientation.”

4. “The University exists, however, within a social and cultural milieu that does not always accept gospel values as normative … 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.”

5. “Institutional nondiscriminating clauses are highly stylized statements which are legally binding. Neither federal nor state law mandates that sexual orientation be included in nondiscrimination clauses. Thus, like a number of other institutions, our clause does not currently include sexual orientation.”

6. “After considerable reflection, we have decided not to add sexual orientation to our legal nondiscrimination clause. To make the change requested would mean that our decisions in this area would be measured by civil courts that may interpret this change through the lens of the broader social milieu in which we live. This, in turn, might jeopardize our ability to make decisions that we believe necessary to support Church teaching. We wish to continue to speak to this issue in the Catholic content that is normative for this community.”

The main argument that the University makes for not including “sexual orientation” in the legal nondiscrimination clause is that while the Church distinguishes between sexual orientation and sexual conduct, the rest of the American public would not limit the language of “sexual orientation” to excluding sexual conduct. For this reason, the University cannot include the phrase because it could compromise their “ability to make decisions… necessary to support Church teaching.” First, along with adding sexual orientation to the nondiscrimination clause, the University has the power to make clear that it is distinguishing between sexual orientation and sexual conduct. If it is thus distinguished in the University’s legal statement, then it will be clear upon interpretation by the courts. Instead of protecting its own ability to make decisions by coupling its interpretation of sexual orientation to the nondiscrimination statement, the University fails to extend its protection uniformly by excluding gay members of the community. Notre Dame specifies that a number of institutions do not include the phrase in their nondiscrimination clauses. This is true, but many also have added it since 1997. 22 of the 28 Jesuit Universities in the United States include sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination clauses. These schools include Wheeling Jesuit, Loyola University of Chicago, John Carroll, Fordham University, Duquesne University and Boston College. After reading these schools’ nondiscrimination clauses, and then turning one’s attention to Notre Dame’s, the omission of “sexual orientation” is obvious.

While the distinction between sexual orientation and sexual conduct is critical to Notre Dame as a Catholic institution, the University, by not including sexual orientation in the nondiscrimination clause, itself does not distinguish between the two phrases. Instead, it errs on the side of discrimination against members of the gay community because it fears that the rest of the American community will not distinguish. However, if the University advocates that all sexual activity must be abstained from until marriage, and enforces this via parietals and educational programs on campus, then adding sexual orientation to the nondiscrimination clause will not be a problem for the University with respect to distinguishing on campus between sexual orientation and sexual activity. It would appear then, that the University is in fact not changing the nondiscrimination clause for fear of what the outside community will think; however, Lance Gallop said it well in his letter to The Observer, “There but for the grace of God go I (Oct. 11)”: “[Gay members of the community] need a University which is brave enough to say, ‘It doesn’t matter if our donors or our trustees walk away because we choose to accept you. If we lose money and power and prestige because of you, we do not care. We love you more than this.'”

With the increase and prominence of teen suicides of people thought to be gay, there has come an increased focus on bullying based on sexual orientation. What happened at Rutgers University to Tyler Clementi could happen to someone at the University of Notre Dame. Rutgers was just about to implement workshops as a part of Project Civility, to teach students to be tolerant and accepting of others. Notre Dame cannot stand idly and pretend that this could not happen at the University. Rutgers has the right idea. They already have “sexual orientation” in the nondiscrimination clause, and the planned Project Civility is a great idea. Notre Dame is behind in this respect. Adding “sexual orientation” to the nondiscrimination clause is the first step.

In 1997, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published the pastoral letter, “Always our Children.” Addressed to parents and pastors of homosexual children, the letter read in part: “First, don’t break off contact; don’t reject your child. … Your child may need you and the family now more than ever. He or she is still the same person. This child, who has always been God’s gift to you, may now be the cause of another gift: your family becoming more honest, respectful, and supportive.” It is time the University of Notre Dame became more honest, respectful and supportive of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered members of its family.


Alex Coccia is a freshman. He can be contacted at acoccia@nd.edu

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

necessarily those of The Observer.