The Tufts University community is facing a growing struggle over the existence of the Tufts Christian Fellowship as a recognized student group on campus. At stake is the ability of Tufts students to organize around shared religious beliefs—and, more broadly, whether the Tufts campus still accepts the American conception of religious pluralism.
There are three sides in this fight. First is the Tufts Christian Fellowship (TCF), a chapter of the national student organization InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. TCF wishes to be able to select its leaders based on their beliefs and exclude from leadership those who do not share the group’s doctrinal understanding. Second is a faculty/student committee called the Committee on Student Life, which recently decided that groups like TCF should be able to make such belief-based decisions on leadership as long as they convince the head chaplain of Tufts that their need to make such choices is based on legitimate religious needs. And third is a group of students, many of whom recently organized under the banner of the Coalition Against Religious Exclusion (CARE) at Tufts, that believes that TCF should not be able to "discriminate" in its choice of leaders based on beliefs.
TCF’s continued existence on campus was first threatened back in September, supposedly over the group’s requirement that its leaders subscribe to its "Basis of Faith," Section 3 of the group‘s constitution. Section 3 is generally a statement of the characteristics of traditional Christianity, such as a belief in the Trinity, the divine inspiration of the Bible, and the belief that Jesus will one day return.
Yet the real problems seem to be with Section 4, which outlines the "Characteristics of a Leader":
Leaders of TCF (1) should support and advocate for the letter and spirit of TCF’s Basis of Faith and (2) in response to God’s Love, Grace and Truth should seek to exemplify Christ-like characteristics such as humility, honesty, racial reconciliation, concern for the poor and oppressed of society, sacrificial love, sexual chastity, respect for lawful authority, respect for biblical authority, and integrity, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Leaders should strive to exhibit the Fruits of the Spirit in all aspects of their lives (Galatians 5:22-26).
Tufts’ nondiscrimination policy, which TCF was accused of violating in its constitution, states (PDF):
Tufts prohibits discrimination against and harassment of any [individual] because of race, color, national or ethnic origin, age, religion, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and expression, including a transgender identity, genetics, veteran status … and any other characteristic protected … under applicable federal or state law.
As with the Supreme Court’s ill–advised 2010 decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which FIRE has criticized and covered extensively, the underlying dispute at Tufts has to do with Christian views regarding homosexuality (contained in the idea of "sexual chastity" above), although it also involves to a lesser extent matters of inclusion in general. In Martinez, the Court determined that a public university could (but was not obliged to) require all student groups to admit all students as both members and leaders, regardless of whether they agreed with the core tenets of the group. Interestingly, despite the fact that Martinez only applies to public universities, the best-known conflict so far has been Vanderbilt University’s unwise decision to force 13 religious groups off of its campus over the same issue.
An article in the December 7, 2011, Tufts Daily (yes, the controversy began that long ago, although it is just now coming to a head) contains some illuminating quotes that do a good job of summing up the crux of the argument:
Junior Brandon Archambault, one of the four students who submitted the complaint to the Judiciary, believes that TCF’s leadership requirements go beyond preventing LGBT individuals from acquiring positions on the [Vision and Planning team, TCF’s student leadership], but also discriminate based on other characteristics and behaviors.
"The constitution allows for discrimination on the basis of religion, sexual chastity and culture," he said. "[If TCF held elections,] say someone is a Christian dating a non-Christian: they wouldn’t be allowed to run for a position. Say someone is gay: They’re not allowed to run for a position. Say someone does not adhere to a conservative Protestant theology or Catholic theology: They wouldn’t be allowed to run for anything."
VPT Member Wai Cheng, a senior, acknowledged that TCF’s sexual chastity requirements would permit students to engage in heterosexual relationships, so long as they were not sexually active and were letting God lead the relationship, but not same-sex relationships, adding that the rule reflects TCF’s religious beliefs.
"You can date, but according to our beliefs, in a heterosexual relationship," Cheng said. "It is basically an expression of our views as a religious group."
Alex Nesbeda (LA ’06), current team leader of the IVCF staff at Tufts, explained that "sexual chastity" traditionally means that one’s sexuality is "directed by Christ," adding that IVCF and TCF interpret Scripture to mean that God intends for people to enter lifetime, one-man-one-woman marriages.
Tufts’ Committee on Student Life was likely hoping that it had squared this circle when, last Wednesday, it announced its decision that while TCF was "correctly" de-recognized because of its supposed violation of Tufts’ nondiscrimination policy, it would be given a chance to survive by successfully arguing before the university chaplaincy for "justified departures from the Tufts nondiscrimination policy" based on the sincerely-held religious beliefs of the group.
CARE found Tufts’ decision to open up the possibility of any kind of continued recognition for TCF intolerable, stating on its Facebook page that the group is "opposed to the University’s recent ‘religious exemption’ policy that would allow InterVarsity Tufts Christian Fellowship to be recognized as a Tufts student organization and still discriminate in the criteria for its leadership positions."
TCF, in contrast, welcomed the decision, despite the fact that it set up a Tufts administrator (the chaplain) as the arbiter of what religious beliefs are legitimate enough to be worthy of a "justified" exception to the nondiscrimination policy. Under this policy, the chaplain of Tufts is now the chief religious judge for a nominally nonsectarian university, and will decide whether a religious group’s beliefs are sufficiently legitimate or acceptable to warrant equal recognition on campus. Tufts may not realize it, but setting up this kind of review process puts the university firmly in the religion business. This bodes ill in the long term for religious groups that might be smaller or even less popular on campus than TCF.
The idea that religious groups should have to plead their case before an administrator in order to be granted equal status flies in the face of the American tradition of religious pluralism. Since our nation’s founding, the United States has avoided this sort of problem by allowing citizens to freely associate around shared beliefs—and to exclude from those associations those who do not share those beliefs. Pluralism is also called religious toleration, and it means that people can live peacefully side-by-side with one another, even if they have wildly different and conflicting beliefs. It’s also how Americans live together each day. Places of worship for Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and, increasingly, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus are found next to one another in big cities and small towns across the nation. Religious groups that war with each other in other countries share streets or even buildings in America. Groups that hold irreconcilable ideas about God nevertheless cooperate in community institutions. This is religious tolerance as Americans have traditionally practiced it, and it is why no country in the world can compare to the United States in its peaceful multiplicity of religious groups.
Nonsectarian (and many sectarian) liberal arts colleges in America have traditionally shared this ethos. Tufts certainly did; indeed, the very first sentence in the article on Tufts University in Tufts’ own "Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts University" is the following: "Tufts College was founded in 1852 by a group of Universalists who had for years worked to open a non-sectarian institution of higher learning." But if CARE gets its way and is able to drive TCF off of campus, this won’t really be true anymore.
CARE is actually arguing that its beliefs about religion be privileged over the beliefs of other groups and established as the rule for all religions at Tufts. Take another look at the "About" section of its Facebook page:
We want to live on a campus where students can gather into moral communities that evolve organically according to the community’s needs—not artificial boxes where students are blinded from the hateful practices of their elites, where their spirituality is imposed upon and defined for them. We want a campus where the community molds its institutions, not the converse.
CARE-affiliated students may be surprised to realize that this can be read as a form of religious manifesto or confession. It makes a statement about the proper source of doctrine: "moral communities that evolve organically according to the community’s needs." It makes a value judgment about those who subscribe to a predefined moral code ("artificial boxes where students are blinded from the hateful practices of their elites"). It opposes TCF’s form of religious organization ("where their spirituality is imposed upon and defined for them"). And it calls for an institutionalization of CARE’s own beliefs and an exclusion of those (like TCF) who don’t share them: "We want a campus where the community molds its institutions, not the converse." It may not be the 95 Theses, but it’s definitely a statement calling for religious and societal reform.
This, by itself, isn’t a problem. CARE is free to have religious or secular ideological beliefs and to urge their adoption by other students or by Tufts itself. And Tufts, as a private institution, is allowed to adopt a religious or secular creed, as well. But both CARE and Tufts should realize that what CARE is asking for isn’t pluralism or diversity—it’s majoritarian uniformity, enforced from the top down by administrators empowered to determine which beliefs are acceptable and which aren’t. Most Americans wouldn’t recognize or accept a society in which the government or a simple majority decided what qualifications are appropriate for a group’s religious leaders, but this is precisely what CARE is asking for.
Activism on the issue is hitting a high pitch right now. From two sources that were live-tweeting the event, it appears that a resolution was introduced in a Student Senate meeting on Sunday night that would have ensured that TCF not receive funding even if it were approved by the Tufts chaplaincy. The student judiciary quickly stepped in and said that such a resolution could not be passed because it was not legitimate under the student government constitution. Nevertheless, it was voted on many times, but failed each time, which inspired angry insults against TCF. Ultimately, the resolution, which had at some point been converted to a nonbinding one, was tabled until the next meeting. The Tufts Daily gives a short summary of the meeting, as well.
Yesterday, CARE held a "Wear Purple in Protest" event, and many pictures of its advocacy are available on its Facebook page. One student described the campus as "a Jumbo size powder keg." (Jumbo is Tufts’ elephant mascot.) On the other side, one bisexual TCF leader has penned an op–ed for The Tufts Daily defending the group and telling her story, and an atheist student has penned an open letter to President Anthony Monaco supporting the right of TCF to choose its leaders.
Tufts is a private institution, and it is free to adopt official religious beliefs about how leaders must be selected with which all students or student groups must comply. But if it’s going to do so, it needs to understand that this is ultimately a religious decision. Such an important change should only be made with eyes wide open with and full consciousness that such a policy would mean that religious diversity and tolerance may no longer be a characteristic of Tufts’ campus. Tufts’ students, professors, and alumni deserve complete candor about any such change.