PROVIDENCE, R.I., November 16, 2006—Brown University has inexplicably suspended one of its largest religious student organizations. After offering shifting and unclear reasons for its decision, Brown ignored requests from Trinity Presbyterian Church’s campus fellowship for an explanation of its suspension. The student group finally sought help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has asked Brown to either explain or revoke its suspension.
“A university that respects its students cannot capriciously suspend student groups,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “Suspension of any student group is a serious matter and should be accompanied by a serious explanation. Yet Brown has consistently skirted questions about the suspension, calling into question both the university’s motives and the legitimacy of the punishment.”
On September 13, 2006, Reverend Janet Cooper Nelson, Director of Brown’s Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life (OCRL), sent the fellowship’s leaders an e-mail explaining that the suspension was brought on by the group’s “non-compliance with University policy and procedure.” She claimed that Trinity Presbyterian Church, the group’s local sponsoring body, “has withdrawn its sponsorship.” Minutes after Cooper Nelson sent that e-mail, however, Trinity Senior Pastor David Sherwood replied that Trinity “has not, in any sense, withdrawn its sponsorship.” In fact, Pastor Sherwood told FIRE that “the group’s leaders and students do a fantastic job of equipping the rising generation of student leaders, and our church community counts it a great privilege to be its sponsoring organization.”
Brown’s Associate Protestant Chaplain, Reverend Allen Callahan, then defended the suspension in an e-mail to Cooper Nelson by saying that the group “had not been a ‘recognized student organization’ since the fall of last year” because its leader at the time submitted a required form late. But the fellowship’s current Director of Student Ministries, Edward Park, reports to FIRE that there was no suspension in place last year, observing that the group retained the right to reserve meeting space throughout the 2005-2006 school year. Park also assures FIRE that this fall he submitted all of the necessary paperwork well before the deadline.
In a final attempt to defend the suspension, Callahan offered the vague and undocumented accusation that the group “had become possessed of a leadership culture of contempt and dishonesty that has rendered all collegial relations with my office impossible.” In response, the students sent the OCRL a letter on September 28 requesting an explanation of the supposed “culture of contempt and dishonesty.” When OCRL failed to respond to that letter, the students contacted FIRE.
On October 27, FIRE sent a letter to Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons to inform her that the organization had been suspended without explanation or due process and to ask that she examine the manner in which the OCRL treats student organizations under its purview. On November 10, Interim Vice President of Campus Life and Student Services Russell Carey replied to FIRE’s letter by stating that he is “satisfied that the [OCRL’s] action was warranted and that it represented an even-handed application” of that office’s policies. Carey also said that he will personally “mediate the matter with the goal of ending the suspension.”
“Over the years FIRE has seen too many examples of administrators treating religious groups in an unjust manner. All students—religious or otherwise—deserve fair treatment,” FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Samantha Harris said. “We hope that Brown will take seriously its promise to revisit the suspension and reach a decision that shows respect for students of faith.”
For now, the fellowship is suspended without knowing what it did wrong, and its nearly one hundred student members are unable to meet on campus. As Pastor Sherwood of Trinity Presbyterian Church concluded, “it’s the students who lose out in this situation. It’s hard to imagine that anyone’s involvement in this organization could be anything but beneficial and salutary.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve religious liberty on campus can be found at www.thefire.org/about-us/campus-rights/religious-liberty.
Samantha Harris, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Ruth J. Simmons, President, Brown University: 401-863-2234; email@example.com
Janet Cooper Nelson, Director of the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life, Brown University: 401-863-2344; Janet_Cooper-Nelson@brown.edu