SPOKANE, WA— Gonzaga University’s president, Father Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., has permitted the School of Law’s Student Bar Association (SBA) to refuse to recognize a Christian student organization. According to the SBA, the Gonzaga Pro-Life Law Caucus’s requirement that its leadership be Christian is “discriminatory.”
“We live in a strange age, indeed, when a Catholic, Jesuit university would deny a Christian pro-life group recognition because its religious nature is considered ‘discriminatory,'” said Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). “It is sad enough when secular institutions do not recognize the value of religious freedom. Gonzaga University, a Catholic institution, owes its very existence to America’s commitments to religious liberty and voluntary association.”
Ashley Horne, a second-year law student and co-founder of the Gonzaga Pro-Life Law Caucus, had learned from one of FIRE’s public information campaigns about the administrative barriers regularly encountered on America’s campuses by pro-life and Christian student groups seeking recognition. After consulting with FIRE, Horne submitted her group’s constitution and leadership requirements to the SBA, which acts as an agent of the university in the matter of student group recognition. According to the SBA minutes for September 23, 2003, SBA President Albert Guadagno and others complained that the group’s Christian leadership requirement was “discriminatory.”
Worried that the Caucus might be denied recognition, Horne contacted Gonzaga law professor David DeWolf. In a September 25 e-mail to Mr. Guadagno, DeWolf stated that he had discussed the issue with Law School Dean Daniel Morrissey, who in turn consulted with University Counsel Mike Casey. According to DeWolf, both Morrissey and Casey were “of the opinion that university policy permits restricting a group’s leadership (or even membership) to those committed to the group’s religious purpose.” He continued, “It is not surprising that a university operated by a religious order that restricts its own membership would be tolerant of student groups doing the same.”
Undeterred, Guadagno called a closed meeting of the SBA’s executive board, which Caucus representatives were not permitted to attend. After that meeting, Guadagno notified Horne and several other students that the board had ruled that the Caucus’ leadership requirement violated Gonzaga University’s and Gonzaga Law School’s mission statements. He informed them that the full SBA would not vote on the matter.
Gonzaga Law School’s Statement on Non-Discrimination declares that the school is “committed to a full and vigorous policy of non-discrimination without regard to race, color, national origin…or religion.” It also emphasizes that ” All University policies…are consistent with Gonzaga’s Catholic, Jesuit identity and Mission Statement.” Indeed, the non-discrimination policy explicitly states that Gonzaga “reserves the right to take religious faith into consideration where it is deemed appropriate.” The Law School’s Mission Statement goes still further, committing the law school to “providing interested students with a supportive setting to explore and deepen their Christian faith within our warm and welcoming environment for students of all religious backgrounds or secular moral traditions.”
The Caucus continued to seek recognition, clarifying its essential Christian identity and mission. Guadagno refused to consider the Caucus’s revised application.
After exhausting its resources within the law school, the Caucus turned to FIRE. FIRE’s Lukianoff wrote to President Spitzer on November 24, 2003, asking him to ensure that Gonzaga would respect the freedom of religion and the right to voluntary association of its students: “The great irony here is that by denying the Caucus the right to be led by Christians, the SBA is engaging in—not preventing—religious discrimination.” Lukianoff also pointed out that “The School of Law’s SBA both shows contempt for basic freedoms any public university would have to recognize under the Constitution of the United States and exhibits fundamental intolerance towards Catholic doctrine itself.” FIRE further informed President Spitzer that the SBA had also denied recognition to the Christian Legal Society.
Spitzer has not responded to FIRE’s letter. His silence leaves the Pro-Life Law Caucus without the official sanction enjoyed by numerous law student groups, including the Sexual Orientation Diversity Alliance, the Armed Forces Law Club, the Women’s Law Caucus, and the Tax Club. The Gonzaga administration’s failure to intervene on behalf of the Caucus is especially ironic, given that Spitzer himself is a member of the religiously defined Jesuits and the founder of University Faculty for Life. “Spitzer should extend to his students,” Lukianoff observed, “the same rights from which he himself benefits so fully.”
Gonzaga’s refusal to recognize a Christian student group will not go unchallenged. FIRE is launching a campaign to publicly expose Gonzaga’s double standard and to inform the university’s trustees and friends of what has occurred there. FIRE will hold Gonzaga to its word, working to make sure that the university upholds its promise to welcome people of all faiths.
On November 25, FIRE congratulated Gonzaga University for reversing a decision to punish the College Republicans (CRs) for using the “discriminatory” word “hate” on a flier. Gonzaga administrators had disciplined the group by placing a letter in its file. In response to letters of protest about these illiberal actions, Gonzaga Director of Public Relations Dale Goodwin replied that the students had never been punished. Placing a letter in a student organization’s file listing allegations against it is a standard punishment in higher education. Such letters are routinely used against groups in future disciplinary proceedings to establish a pattern of repeat offenses. The letter placed in the CRs’ file noted that “the club will not have any sanctions brought against them,” but it also said, “the complaint will be included in your file.” Though the College Republicans’ flier had been pre-approved by Gonzaga administrators, the letter warned the group “that in the future you [should] watch what information is printed on your flyers.” This is the very essence of a “chilling effect” on speech.
Goodwin’s reply inaccurately claimed that the CRs were merely given “direction” about how to compose fliers. Director of Student Activities David Lindsay told The Gonzaga Bulletin that he “took one [flier] down because our publicity policy says that we don’t allow hate speech to be posted around campus.” CR President Paul Schafer says that Lindsay told him that the CRs shouldn’t “hate” anyone (an odd admonition considering that the text of the flier was the title of a book criticizing hate). Schafer says that Lindsay then compared the CRs’ posting of the flier to the existence of a white club that hates black people. Further, when Gonzaga informed FIRE that it would remove the disciplinary letter from the file, the vice president of student life conceded that “it is not generally Gonzaga’s practice to place letters in club and organization files for such matters.” It is clear that Gonzaga administrators subjected Schafer and his group to far more than friendly, neutral “direction.” FIRE is pleased that the disciplinary letter has been removed, but it wishes that Gonzaga administrators would simply admit their error.
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 liberty at Gonzaga and on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Father Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., President, Gonzaga University : 509-328-4220; email@example.com
Daniel Morrissey, Dean, Gonzaga Law School : 509-323-3693; firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Casey, Corporation Counsel, Gonzaga University : 509-323-6137; email@example.com
Albert Guadagno, President, Student Bar Association: firstname.lastname@example.org