Brown bans evangelical organization of students

November 20, 2006

An evangelical student group that has been banned from advertising or meeting on the Brown University campus has enlisted the help of a national organization that defends the free-speech rights of students on college campuses.

The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education announced last week that it is supporting the 100-member Reformed University Fellowship, which was notified in a Sept. 13 e-mail from the university’s chaplain, the Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson, that its status as a recognized student organization had been withdrawn.

Leaders of the group say they were given different reasons for the action. At first, they were told it was because their local sponsor, Trinity Presbyterian Church, had withdrawn its support, which it hadn’t. Then they were told that it was because the group’s former leader had been two months late in September 2005 when he submitted the group’s application to be recognized as a campus organization. But the third reason is one that group leaders say is most baffling: the Rev. Allen Callahan, Protestant chaplain, asserted they were “possessed of a leadership culture of contempt and dishonesty that has rendered all collegial relations with my office impossible.”

Student leaders said they still don’t know what he meant, and wrote a long letter to the chaplain’s office seeking elaboration. There’s been no response.

“We were disappointed that the university administration should treat us so lightly that they wouldn’t even acknowledge our letter,” said the fellowship’s president, Ethan Wingfield, a senior philosophy major. “We felt disrespected.”

“We turned to FIRE because it seems they have a strong history of sticking up for campus organizations that are having their right to assemble and practice their religion withheld.”

On Oct. 27, the student-rights group wrote to Brown President Ruth J. Simmons asking her to examine how student religious organizations are being treated by the chaplaincy office

After Russell Carey, the university’s vice president of campus life, wrote that he was “satisfied” that the chaplaincy’s action was warranted, FIRE posted Brown’s actions on its Web site and sent news releases around the country, hoping public scrutiny would force the university to reconsider. Tara E. Sweeney, a senior program officer for FIRE, said that Brown, as a private institution, is not directly bound by the First Amendment, but that it does promise its students the right of peaceful assembly. Denying those rights, she said, “is a serious matter requiring a reasonable explanation.”

Brown chaplains and administrators deliberated for two days last week after The Providence Journal asked the chaplains for a response. Late Friday, Michael Chapman, vice president for public affairs, issued a statement confirming that the Reform University Fellowship had been suspended “due to its failure to abide by guidelines established for all religious groups on campus.”

Chapman declined to say what guidelines the group broke. He said Brown has offered to assist the group in “taking the necessary steps to have its affiliation restored” but gave no indication when that would be.

Edward Park, a Brown alumnus who is director of student ministry for Trinity Presbyterian, says the Reformed University Fellowship underwent its most recent name change in 2003 but that its roots go back to the early 1990s when it was known as the Hands of Providence Fellowship. He said it was the largest evangelical student group on the Brown campus.

Wingfield, the group’s president, says activities have included small-group Bible study on Friday nights and worship on Sunday.

Bible classes used to be held in Wilson Hall, but because of the ban are held at the church on Clifford Street, near the Jewelry District. Sunday worship is at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church near Brown. Because of the ban, the group’s ability to recruit has been severely restricted, Wingfield said, causing the number of members to plummet from 150 to fewer than 100 this year.

“We’ve been blacklisted. A message went out to all the university offices that they were not to provide us with services of any kind – not even use of a copy machine or a stapler.”

Wingfield said the group was amazed that Brown would use a year-old incident — the failure to submit a reapplication on time — to ban an organization. “Brown is one of the most relaxed institutions there is. Students can drop out of a course on the last day of the semester and get the class erased from their records,” said Wingfield.

“For Brown to say an organization should be suspended because of a late form strikes most people as unreasonable.”

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Schools: Brown University Cases: Brown University: Wrongful Suspension of Religious Student Group