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Mystery Shrouds Brown’s Suspension of Religious Student Organization

Today’s press release explains how Brown University suspended one of its largest and most active religious student organizations for reasons that remain unclear. The Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life (OCRL) suspended the evangelical Christian ministry of Trinity Presbyterian Church on September 13, 2006.

OCRL Director Janet Cooper Nelson explained that she suspended the group because its local sponsoring body, Trinity Presbyterian Church, had revoked its sponsorship. But Trinity’s senior pastor, David Sherwood, corrected Cooper Nelson in an e-mail by saying that “Trinity Presbyterian Church has not, in any sense, withdrawn its sponsorship.” Trinity is one of the 1,500 congregations of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), which has a strong history of ministering to college students, and, as Rev. Sherwood explains to FIRE, greatly values its association with the Brown students.

The OCRL’s Allen Callahan then explained that the group had actually been suspended since last year, when its former leader failed to submit paperwork on time. Except the group didn’t know about any suspension last year, and was able to reserve rooms for meeting throughout the year. Unless there was some secret suspension in place, Callahan’s claim seems to be false.

Since the first two explanations for the suspension don’t hold water, the suspension rests on Callahan’s claim that the group has “become possessed of a leadership culture of contempt and dishonesty.” But what does that even mean? The students were also confounded by Callahan’s accusations, and sent his office a letter asking for clarification about its “culture of contempt and dishonesty,” but received no response.

So, in short, the OCRL suspended a group, pointed to two explanations that are at best mistakes (and at worst deliberate misrepresentations), and then hurled vague and unverifiable accusations at the group. The documentation shows nothing but a good-faith effort by the students to get the suspension lifted. But all one has to do is read Callahan’s e-mail carefully to see that it has been the OCRL that has acted arbitrarily and, dare I say, dishonestly, suspending the group based on what seems to be personal animosity dating back to past years.

Student groups—religious or otherwise—should not exist at the mercy of administrative caprice, especially at America’s most venerable institutions. Brown University encourages its students to forge their own path, famously telling them that at Brown, “you will be challenged to define liberal education for yourself.” But students whose definition includes membership in this evangelical Christian fellowship are just out of luck.

In response to FIRE’s October 27 letter, Brown says it will look into the situation. That is little consolation for the 100 students who are not allowed to meet on campus. The message that Brown is sending its students is that their associative rights rest at the discretion of a few administrators; displease the wrong people, and you might find your group mysteriously suspended.

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