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Observer Editorial: Don’t just include, protect

| Friday, April 13, 2018

At Notre Dame, sexual orientation is not a protected class under the University’s nondiscrimination policy.

As this week is both Ally Week and You are Loved” Week on campus, this fact warrants conversation.

It is important to note that while the University excludes sexual orientation from its nondiscrimination policy, it does not overlook the LGBTQ community altogether. LGBTQ concerns are addressed in the University’s Spirit of Inclusion statement.

“We value gay and lesbian members of this community as we value all members of this community,” the statement reads. “We condemn harassment of any kind, and University policies proscribe it. We consciously create an environment of mutual respect, hospitality and warmth in which none are strangers and all may flourish.”

In light of the University’s nondiscrimination policy, this statement takes on significant importance. It defines the University’s commitment to the LGBTQ community and pledges to “condemn harassment” and “create an environment” in which these members of our campus community at large may “flourish.”

However, it is the opinion of this Editorial Board that the University has failed in some ways to uphold this commitment.

We recognize the University’s precarious position: As a Catholic institution, some of Notre Dame’s interests will undoubtedly be in tension with the interests of the LGBTQ community on campus. As the inclusion policy shows, the University has attempted to adopt a position of tolerance — a tolerance which itself did not exist for quite some time in the University’s history. The University has routinely denied LGBTQ clubs official recognition since the 1980s. But in reality, the current position is simply a symbolic gesture that Notre Dame hides behind to give the appearance of acceptance while acting merely through tolerance, a nuance that we believe matters. Merely pledging tolerance while keeping LGBTQ students out of the official nondiscrimanation policy violates the spirit of the University’s commitment to its LGBTQ community members.

PrismND serves as a good example of how the administration views this topic. Forged from Beloved Friends and Allies, the organization is officially recognized by the University and provides LGBTQ students with a community that can offer them resources. But what the organization cannot do is advocate for these students. Its charter states that it must “avoid any political or social activities that might compromise Notre Dame’s Roman Catholic allegiance and commitments” in all its programs and initiatives. As a result, the University’s attempt to depoliticize in favor of tolerance has only resulted in hypocrisy and greater controversy.

Take last year for example, when members of PrismND tried to distribute Pride flags in LaFortune Student Center but were unable to do so, both as individuals and as part of an organization through SAO. Their precarious position barred them from doing either because individual students need SAO approval as an officially-recognized student group to use the space, but their organization could not receive that approval because it is required to be apolitical. The irony of this, of course, is that the students then had to distribute the flags from the College Democrats office as a result, which ended up making the issue more political.

This example is a microcosm of the larger issue. Where College Democrats could distribute the flags, PrismND could not. In one of the most confusing ironies, PrismND can host an Ally Week, but not a Pride Week. PrismND is a “special interest organization” as part of the Student Activities Organization, and while the students in PrismND wrote the group’s constitution, the University administration wrote its charter. As a result, while other groups can bring and have brought in speakers who take political stances contrary to “Notre Dame’s Catholic allegiance and commitments” — such as former Texas senator Wendy Davis, who visited campus at the invitation of the College Democrats in April 2016 — PrismND cannot.

Perhaps PrismND serves the LGBTQ community best by being an apolitical organization. After all, not all members of the community will necessarily share the same political beliefs. 

But shouldn’t that be PrismND’s choice? Is it “toleration” to limit the organization’s ability to speak for itself? Shouldn’t the University be willing to allow any kind of student group – either PrismND or another separate group – to have the prerogative to advocate for the LGBTQ community?

No such activist group currently exists on Notre Dame’s campus. And none of the currently-existing political groups can fulfill that role either, for doing so forces LGBTQ students to pigeonhole themselves as “Republican,” “Democrat” or otherwise, despite the fact that they come from various ideological backgrounds with differing political agendas. But even if they could, treating LGBTQ issues in this way would only further politicize them, which, of course, is antithetical to the University’s Spirit of Inclusion statement.

And this brings us back to the heart of the problem. Here at Notre Dame, the treatment of LGBTQ organizations such as PrismND amount to tolerance and compromise. But simultaneously, the University has failed to legally protect the very same community from discrimination. Notre Dame’s actions continue to treat these distinct ideas as one and the same, and as long as this is the case, it will continue to violate the spirit of its Spirit of Inclusion statement.

There is no doubt that when it comes to balancing its Catholic interests and the interests of its LGBTQ students, Notre Dame is stuck between a rock and a hard place. But by pretending the status quo adequately satisfies both those interests, the University continues to not do right by its LGBTQ community members, as exemplified in the way PrismND is mandated to operate.

The University needs to do better, starting with adding sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy. As for further steps? Perhaps giving PrismND the ability to choose whether or not to be apolitical, and addressing its somewhat unclear status as a “special interest organization” appropriately. Or perhaps allowing a student group to form that can act in the political interests of the community without compelling the University to be an active agent which supports that political agenda — that is, after all, the same justification University President Fr. John Jenkins used to explain Notre Dame’s involvement in the HHS lawsuit to faculty in November.

We are not asking the University to actively promote policies that go against its Catholic mission. But Notre Dame does have a duty to protect its community members, and in light of its inadequate Spirit of Inclusion statement, there is no doubt the University owes real protection to the LGBTQ community — members of the Notre Dame family. 

At the very least, this is the only way in which these members of our community can truly “flourish.”

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