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GSA decision postponed

Sarah Mervosh | Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Notre Dame announced Tuesday it would continue to consider whether to approve a gay-straight alliance as an official student club, deferring a decision until the beginning of the next academic year. The University also responded to requests for a public explanation as to why it did not add sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination clause.

The deferral marks the first time an application for a student club addressing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) issues was not denied.

Director of Student Activities for Programming Peggy Hnatusko sent an email to the co-presidents of AllianceND, the gay-straight alliance that applied for club status, notifying them of the deferral.

“The University intends to review the breadth of structures and services currently provided to LGBTQ students and their allies by the University in the hopes of making the best decisions possible to support our students and the University community, all within the context of Catholic teaching,” she stated in the email. “I will review AllianceND’s application in the course of those discussions.”

In her 15 years as director, Hnatusko said this is the first year she has deferred a decision about a club’s status.

“I just wanted a little bit more time to look at the proposal, look at what the University offered,” she said. “There has been a lot going on and I wanted to give everyone the fairest chance possible.”

Hnatusko also deferred the decision regarding the application of a law school club seeking to address LGBTQ issues.

University Spokesman Dennis Brown said leaders from various sectors of the University will come together this summer to review the structures and services currently in place for LGBTQ students and their allies.

“We want to take a close and comprehensive look at exactly what we do, what we could do and what we should do, all in the context of Catholic teaching,” he said.

Brown said the University has made significant progress on improving support for LGBTQ students over the past few years, and he said the administration appreciates the different perspectives that were offered on this issue over the course of the academic year.

“There has been a lot of good give and take and we think it all has been with a common commitment to make Notre Dame a more welcoming and inclusive and supportive community,” Brown said. “That is how the University leadership will approach the deliberations and discussions throughout the summer and into the fall in terms of how we can more fully realize that goal.”

Sophomore Alex Coccia, who serves as co-president of AllianceND, said he views the deferral as a positive change. (Editor’s note: Coccia is a columnist for The Observer’s Viewpoint section.)

“This is the first deferral and [I] think that is extremely important in and of itself,” he said. “I am encouraged that the decision to defer is part of what seems to be a broader examination of structures and services at Notre Dame.”

Coccia said he hopes students, faculty and staff will continue to voice their opinions on the issue over the summer and into next fall.

“I think the most important thing right now is that student voices … are a part of the process and part of the broad review,” he said.

Former student body president Pat McCormick and members of the outgoing student government administration will meet with the Board of Trustees on Thursday and plan to express the student body’s support of a gay-straight alliance. McCormick said they also plan to emphasize the importance of incorporating student voices throughout the review process.

Brown also offered an explanation Tuesday for last week’s announcement that the University would not include sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination clause.

Brown said changing the nondiscrimination clause could lead to legal challenges that might undermine the University’s ability to adhere to Catholic moral teaching.

“We’ve looked at this very closely from a legal and theological perspective and just have no assurance that the civil courts would respect the distinctions within Catholic moral teaching, the distinctions relative to orientation and conduct in particular,” he said.

Brown said it was “a collective decision” to maintain the current wording of the nondiscrimination clause, though University President Fr. John Jenkins ultimately made the call.  

Unlike some Catholic universities, Notre Dame is not required by state law to include sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination clause, Brown said. There is not a federal law that requires it, either.  

“The vast majority of those who have added have had to do so because of either state or local laws,” he said. “We have chosen to not voluntarily add it, which is what it would be. It would be a voluntary addition.”

Across the street, Saint Mary’s College includes sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination clause, though it is not required by law to do so.

“Different institutions make different decisions,” Brown said. “We believe that our commitment to inclusion and our commitment not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation is every bit as strong as any other institution.”

Brown emphasized that Notre Dame does not discriminate or tolerate harassment on the basis of any personal characteristic, including sexual orientation.

“We think it is important for our faculty and staff and students to not only feel just comfortable here, but to know that if the need were to arise, that they have access to a full range of remedies, including legal remedies, if they were wronged in any way because of sexual orientation,” he said.

Sexual orientation is currently part of the University’s discriminatory harassment policy, which protects current students and employees experiencing harassment.

Changing the nondiscrimination clause, on the other hand, would protect prospective students and employees in areas such as admissions, employment, scholarships and athletics.

Brown also said the academic articles of the University also provide protection by prohibiting any kind of discrimination. However, sexual orientation is not listed among the acceptable discrimination factors for appealing tenure, reappointment or promotion decisions.

The academic articles include an option for employees to appeal these decisions on the basis of personal bias, which is the “consideration of factors unrelated to the performance of the appellant in carrying out his or her professional responsibilities.” However, it is not clear whether sexual orientation fits into that description.  
Without sexual orientation in the nondiscrimination clause, it is also unclear if prospective students and employees have legal protection if they feel they are denied admission or employment on the basis of their sexual orientation.

When asked if any University policies offer such a protection in writing, Brown said in an email, “we have clearly and publicly stated and demonstrated that we don’t discriminate, and we stand by that position.”