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Notre Dame blew it on discrimination policy


It was already a done deal on Dec. 1, the day the Board of Fellows -- a small group of Notre Dame officials entrusted with defining the school’s Catholic character -- unanimously decided not to add the category of “sexual orientation” to the university’s nondiscrimination policy.

Nonetheless, more than 100 students staged a three-day hunger strike supporting a resolution before the full board of trustees in February, a proposed policy change that would have banned discrimination against gays on the South Bend campus.

Even celebrity alumnus Phil Donahue weighed in with his support of the resolution. “What sort of inclusion is it if they say that you are gay, you are a member of the Notre Dame family, but they won’t even give you a room to meet in?” Donahue said at a student-sponsored speak out, referring to the gay student group that has been banned from campus for several years.

Gay alumni wrote to each of the 55 trustees, urging them to approve the change. “We believe it is time for the university to explicitly adopt a policy that commits the university to refrain from using sexual orientation as a criterion in the hiring, retention and promotion of faculty and staff and in the admission and treatment of students,” wrote the chairman of the 750-member lesbian and gay alumni organization.

The proposed change enjoyed widespread support among students and faculty, receiving endorsements from various student government organizations and both the Faculty Senate and the Academic Council, the university’s highest representative governing body.

But in the end, Notre Dame trustees -- the final authority on the matter -- unanimously rejected the proposal, saying in a statement released after the vote they did not “believe that the university should leave to civil courts the interpretation and application of church teaching.”

Making sexual orientation a “protected category” could inhibit the school in its ability to “make decisions that are necessary to support Catholic church teaching,” according a statement, released by the trustees on Feb. 5, the day of the vote.

The trustees’ action caps a nearly 5-year-old struggle for civil rights protection. That struggle erupted during the 1994-95 academic year when the vice president of student affairs outlawed the self-governing gay student group. Because the gay students failed to adopt chastity as one of their organizing principles, the vice president denied them official recognition by the university and banned them from meeting on campus. No other student or alumni group is expected to endorse chastity as one of its organizing principles.

Last year an openly gay Notre Dame priest resigned under the national news media spotlight because he had been removed from preaching at the university’s main church, an action he alleged to be discriminatory.

More recently, the dean of the business college disclosed that one highly qualified candidate for a teaching position was denied the job solely on the basis of his sexual orientation.

In 1997 the administration issued a “spirit of inclusion” statement strongly condemning anti-gay harassment but falling short of banning discriminatory practices. “We choose not to change our legal nondiscrimination clause, but we call ourselves to act in accordance with what we regard as a higher standard -- Christ’s call to inclusiveness, coupled with the gospel’s call to live chaste lives,” wrote the school’s president, Holy Cross Fr. Edward A. Malloy, who strongly opposed changing the policy.

It is truly unfortunate that the school’s president, fellows and trustees insist on chastity as a rationale for defining Notre Dame’s Catholic character and as justification for refusing to bring the university in line with other Catholic schools -- Boston College, The Catholic University of America, Georgetown, DePaul and Loyola -- that already bar discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Notre Dame misses the point: The real issue is legal protection for gays in the classroom and workplace, not permission for sexual misconduct -- gay or straight.

The tradition of Catholic social justice supports such civil rights protection for lesbians and gay men, as Richard Peddicord, a Dominican friar and moral theologian so eloquently argues in his book Gay and Lesbian Rights: A Question: Sexual Ethics or Social Justice.

“Gay and lesbian participation in society is not a matter to be decided by Catholic sexual ethics,” Peddicord said last fall at a national forum.

“Sexual ethics is concerned with the values related to human sexuality and the goals associated with human sexual functioning. It is manifestly incapable of answering questions concerning human and civil rights and determining who will or will not be allowed to share in the concrete goods of society. In traditional Catholic morality, all of these are regulated by the primary social virtue, that of justice.”

Isn’t it about time that Notre Dame establish the virtue of social justice as fundamental to her Catholic character?

Chuck Colbert of Cambridge, Mass., is a 1978 graduate of Notre Dame. He serves on the board of directors of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 1999