Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, has reversed its March 7 decision not to recognize the Knights of Columbus St. Aloysius Gonzaga Council #12583 as a student group. An April 6 statement from the school promised to review the decision after students and the media expressed confusion over the reason Vice President for Student Life Sue Weitz offered for the group’s rejection: the Knights of Columbus “by [its] very nature, is a men’s organization in which only Catholics may participate via membership.”
Similar concerns have been raised before—FIRE reported on the University of Wisconsin’s refusal to recognize the group in 2006 and the policy changes that finally permitted the group in 2007. But Gonzaga’s decision particularly bewildered observers because Gonzaga is a Jesuit-affiliated, Catholic university. Weitz explains the school’s rationale:
If Gonzaga was an institution that served only Catholics and limited the benefits of the collegiate experience only to them, the decision-making process may have been different.
Weitz further clarified that while the “gender exclusivity issue” could be addressed by “formation of a Catholic Daughters student organization at Gonzaga,” the requirement that all members be Catholic was still “inconsistent with the policy and practice of student organization recognition at Gonzaga University.”
Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh released a statement on April 30 approving the Knights of Columbus Council as a “sponsored organization” and relaying additional plans:
Dr. McCulloh has directed the Student Activities department to review and update the “Clubs and Organizations Recognition Policy,” with the goal of more clearly and explicitly identifying … criteria for club eligibility. The revisions are expected to be in place in time for the coming academic year.
In revising its policies, Gonzaga should take note of the reasoning behind recently passed Virginia legislation that protects the rights of student organizations at public universities to limit active membership and leadership to students who are committed to the mission of the group. The Gonzaga University Club Manual states:
The University is committed to promoting awareness and acceptance of human diversity.
The University does not discriminate against [any] person on the basis of race, religion, sex, national origin, age, marital or veteran status, sexual orientation, a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, or [any] other nonmerit factor in employment, education program, or activities which it operates.
Gonzaga’s stance against discrimination based on immutable status is commendable. But as FIRE’s Legislative and Policy Director Joe Cohn explained, requiring organizations to admit any student as a member, even a student who is hostile to the group’s fundamental beliefs, could make groups vulnerable to dilution of the group’s mission or even dissolution of the group altogether. As former FIRE intern Kenny Tan observed, such a requirement “attempts to create diversity within groups at the expense of diversity among groups.” In other words, if Gonzaga truly wants to promote diversity, it will allow student groups to stay strong by excluding those who may hinder the group’s activities or goals.
FIRE is glad to see Gonzaga avoid the nonsensical result of disallowing a student group because of its religious affiliation—an affiliation that matches its own. (Gonzaga was founded by and is affiliated with the Society of Jesus, which limits membership to Catholic men.) We hope the university will take this opportunity to establish policies that allow students to—if they wish—further Gonzaga’s mission of “affirm[ing] the heritage, which has developed through two thousand years of Christian living, theological reflection, and authentic interpretation.”