Catholic Bishops Stood With FIRE in ‘CLS v. Martinez’; Where Will they Stand on Freedom of Association at DePaul?

By on November 19, 2010

The annual fall general assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) concluded its four-day sessions in Baltimore yesterday. Of interest to FIRE and interested Torch readers is that just prior to the assembly’s beginning on Monday, USCCB’s Committee on Catholic Education accepted the recommendations from a working group of bishops and college presidents on how to evaluate the success of Ex corde Ecclesiae, the Vatican’s blueprint for Catholic colleges. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported Monday:

Ex corde, the Vatican’s document to guide Roman Catholic colleges, was released by Pope John Paul II in 1990. The U.S. bishops approved an application document detailing how Ex corde was to be carried out, which went into effect in 2001. The 10-year review, called for in the application document, is supposed to be completed in 2011.

The committee voted to use the recommendations of a working group of bishops and Catholic-college presidents, which suggested five questions for bishops to use in private conversations with the presidents of colleges in their dioceses. The questions were based on a similar set created for the five-year review of Ex corde. The working group added a new question and changed the language to link the questions more directly to the application document.

Inside Higher Ed writer Jack Stripling summed up the tension between Catholic colleges and Catholic bishops well, writing Wednesday that "[t]he occasional flaps between professors at Roman Catholic institutions and the bishops in their dioceses often hinge on whether allegiance to church orthodoxy trumps the free spirit of inquiry celebrated in academe." Stripling also noted:

The document stresses that colleges have the institutional autonomy to preserve academic freedom, while at the same time insisting on "fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church." Those dual tenets have at times created tension, as professors at Catholic colleges grapple with questions about prickly issues such as abortion, contraception and human sexuality.

One of the working group’s members is DePaul University President Dennis Holtschneider. Torch readers will remember that DePaul recently denied recognition to the student group Students for Cannabis Policy Reform (SCPR), saying that doing so would "send an institutional message" that DePaul was "not prepared to manage"–an obvious betrayal of DePaul’s admirable promises of free speech and freedom of association. And it’s worth noting that DePaul didn’t worry about sending an unmanageable "institutional message" when recognizing groups like the LGBTQA activist group Act Out, DePaul College Republicans, DePaul Conservative Alliance, DePaul Democrats, and Law Students for Reproductive Justice.

DePaul Vice President for Student Affairs James R. Doyle replied to FIRE’s September 30 letter by arguing that DePaul’s blatant viewpoint discrimination against SCPR was justified because "[c]onsiderable research indicates that the use of cannabis does not contribute to healthy decision-making, particularly in college-age populations." Not only is this unconvincing–what exactly, in DePaul’s eyes, constitutes "considerable research"?–it blatantly mischaracterized the purpose of the group, making its members sound like extras from the movie Half Baked rather than a group of students interested in working toward policy reform.

FIRE wrote to President Holtschneider a second time on Wednesday, skewering DePaul’s rationale and asking DePaul once again to recognize the right of free speech and freedom of association it promises to all students. FIRE copied USCCB’s Committee on Catholic Education; in fact, we had our letter faxed to the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel, where the assembly was being held.

FIRE and USCCB have been partners in the fight for freedom of association for student groups before. Prior to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, FIRE and USCCB both submitted friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of CLS. Despite our efforts, the Supreme Court eventually ruled against CLS in a sharply divided 5-4 decision, holding that the First Amendment rights of CLS were not violated when the University of California Hastings College of the Law denied recognition to the group. (FIRE’s comprehensive FAQ on CLS v. Martinez is available here.)

Echoing some of FIRE’s concerns, USCCB’s amicus brief argued that refusing to recognize CLS would distort debate on important issues. Will USCCB see things differently when it comes to the recognition of belief-based groups like Students for Cannabis Policy Reform?

DePaul, of course, has its own First Amendment right to freedom of association. It is free to recognize only groups it determines to be in line with traditional Catholic teachings, but only so long as it makes this practice clear and unequivocally informs students thinking of attending DePaul about what rights they should and should not expect to possess when they set foot on campus. The problem is that DePaul is trying to have it both ways, stating in policy that "intellectual inquiry is enriched immeasurably by robust debate and exposure to differing points of view" and then arbitrarily denying groups based on their viewpoint.

DePaul, it’s time to shape up and decide what your priorities are. And as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops weighs Catholic orthodoxy against the traditional virtues of the academy, perhaps it also will take some time to weigh the virtue of universities like DePaul promising students freedom of association and delivering censorship.

Schools: DePaul University Cases: DePaul University: Discrimination against Student Organization