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Notre Dame Offers Weak Excuse for Denying Controversial Student Group Recognition

The University of Notre Dame is refusing to officially recognize the student group Students for Child-Oriented Policy (SCOP), which advocates for what it calls “child-oriented” policies—most notably, “traditional marriage”—in the state of Indiana. Notre Dame’s mission statement says that the university’s goals include providing a forum for “free inquiry and open discussion,” and that “the University insists upon academic freedom which makes open discussion and inquiry possible.”

So what interest trumped this broad promise to its students? According to Notre Dame, SCOP too “closely mirrored” other student groups on campus.

Last Friday, FIRE wrote to the University of Notre Dame to address the insufficiency of this excuse. The university’s rationale is inaccurate on its face, demonstrates a troubling double standard, and was asserted under suspicious circumstances, as the group’s stance against same-sex marriage had garnered significant criticism from many in the Notre Dame community.

An initial decision letter from Director of Student Activities for Programming Margaret S. Hnatusko didn’t specify to which organizations SCOP was supposedly too similar. Notre Dame’s student-run Club Coordination Council (CCC) President Jimmy McEntee told the National Catholic Register that in recommending that the school deny SCOP recognition, CCC deemed the Orestes Brownson Council on Catholicism and American Politics (OBC) and the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) to be similar to SCOP in nature. But OBC focuses on Catholicism broadly; SCOP’s mission is narrow, and SCOP describes itself as nonsectarian. CDF, meanwhile, states on its website that it aims to educate the community about issues of child poverty, a marked difference from SCOP’s focus. Further, it’s unclear whether CDF is even still active, since the site was last updated over seven years ago.

That’s not all, though. As FIRE wrote in our letter, Notre Dame recognizes many student organizations that could be considered redundant—particularly under the broad standards it applied to SCOP:

For example, Notre Dame lists as recognized organizations two environmental groups: Students for Environmental Action and GreeND. It also recognizes the Latino Student Alliance (La Alianza) and MEChA (Moviemiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan). It also, unsurprisingly, has several organizations devoted to exploring the Roman Catholic faith and lifestyle, including the Campus Fellowship of the Holy Spirit, Communion and Liberation of Notre Dame, Iron Sharpens Iron, Filii Marie, and Militia Immaculata. … (Notre Dame recognizes its own NAACP chapter in addition to the Black Student Association, Black Graduate Student Association, and Black Cultural Arts Council, among other organizations.)

Finally, Notre Dame’s decision is especially suspect because the university had been under pressure to reject the group because of the content of its message. After SCOP circulated a petition opposing same-sex marriage and asking Notre Dame to do the same, over 600 students signed a petition asking the university to deny SCOP official recognition, arguing that to grant recognition would “send[ ] the message that as a University we agree and uphold the assertions of the club.” This argument defies common sense, though; no reasonable person could conclude that Notre Dame agrees with the assertions of all its recognized clubs, including College Democrats, College Republicans, and College Libertarians, for example. These groups do not speak on behalf of the university.

FIRE’s Robert Shibley further explains the ongoing controversy surrounding SCOP in an article for The Daily Caller published earlier this week. Robert expands on the distinctions between SCOP on the one hand, and OBC and CDF on the other. Spoiler alert: The more details you have, the more ridiculous Notre Dame’s reasoning looks.

Notre Dame isn’t the first religious institution to try to fudge its way out of its stated commitment to open debate on campus and deny recognition to a student group based on its message. But to offer only an obviously insufficient and disingenuous rationale for rejecting a student group that was already facing opposition based on its viewpoint? That takes serious chutzpah.

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