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The Christian canary in Harvard’s coal mine

Education | Ivy League leader puts campus ministry on probation over belief-based leadership requirements
by Leigh Jones
Posted 3/07/18, 12:00 pm

It’s been seven years since Vanderbilt University forced nearly all Christian student groups off campus by demanding they abandon faith-based leadership requirements. Despite fears the Vanderbilt decision would spur a rash of anti-religious policies at private universities, most chose not to follow the Nashville school’s lead.

But now the nation’s top Ivy League school has put its largest campus Christian group on probation, again raising worries about a widespread, faith-based purge.

Harvard administrators began investigating Harvard College Faith and Action (HCFA) last year after a Bible study leader reported the group pressured her to resign her leadership position over her decision to date another woman. Last month, the school announced it would place HCFA on probation for a year, giving the group time to prove its compliance with the school’s non-discrimination policies. According to the Harvard College Student Handbook, recognized campus student groups cannot discriminate on the basis of “sexual orientation.”

HCFA’s leaders and its parent ministry, Christian Union, insist the group already meets all the school’s requirements for maintaining its official recognized status. While administrators and the student union have framed the issue in terms of discrimination, HCFA notes the disagreement really falls to a difference in belief.

“We reject any notion that we discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in our fellowship,” HCFA co-presidents Scott Ely and Molly L. Richmond wrote in an email to The Harvard Crimson. “Broadly speaking, the student in this case was removed because of an irreconcilable theological disagreement pertaining to our character standards.”

In January, another campus Christian group won its fight against the University of Iowa over belief-based leadership requirements. The judge ruled the state school couldn’t prevent members of Business Leaders in Christ from selecting leaders who shared their faith, unless it applied the same standard to other groups, which it had not done. Applying the anti-bias policy unequally violated students’ religious liberty rights, the judge ruled.

But private universities like Harvard don’t have to respect constitutional protections, leaving Christian groups at the mercy of administrators who value inclusion and tolerance above all else. Kim Colby, director of the Christian Legal Society’s Center of Law and Religious Freedom, said that’s not necessarily a bad place to be. The conversations sparked as a result of Vanderbilt’s decision to force Christian groups off campus helped show where zealous enforcement of anti-bias policies would logically lead.

“At many campuses they finally understood why applying a policy that in their minds prevents discrimination actually amounts to religious discrimination,” Colby said.

The Christian students at Harvard now have a prime opportunity to make the case for pluralism on campus. Does Harvard want to be known as a place where only some ideas are tolerated? Colby called religious groups the canary in the campus intolerance coal mine.

“In the last couple of years we’ve seen situations where it’s clear the climate on campus is very bad for free speech and for organizations that dissent from the campus culture,” she said. “That can be political, social, or religious. I think in that sense, a lot of people who might have said religious groups are just unwilling to acquiesce to reasonable requests realize that these aren’t actually reasonable requests. They’re actually trying to rid the campus of any views the administration doesn’t like.”

Associated Press/Photo by Richard Taras Associated Press/Photo by Richard Taras Jacobe Taras

Putting the rights of some over the lives of others

Parents of a middle school student who committed suicide after enduring relentless bullying are facing opposition from a powerful and unlikely foe—LGBT lobby groups. Richard and Christine Taras are advocating for a New York law that would require school districts tell parents when their children are being bullied, information the grieving parents say could have helped them save their 13-year-old son, Jacobe. 

“We had no idea of the extent or the seriousness of what was going on,” Richard Taras said. “My son didn't tell me and the school didn't pass along the information they had.”

But LGBT advocates say telling parents about bullying could unintentionally “out” students who don’t want their parents to know about their sexual orientation or gender identity. The push to protect some students leaves others vulnerable and confuses educators who want to help. The School Administrators Association of New York hasn’t taken a stance on the law out of concerns over the sexuality issue.

“It might seem like an area that should be clear cut, but it’s not for us,” said Cynthia Gallagher, an official with the association.

While advocacy groups quibble over which students are worth protecting, the Tarases just wish they’d known the extent of their son’s suffering. His suicide note offered their first and last glimpse into his torment: “Dear Mom and Dad, I’m sorry but I can not live anymore. I just can’t deal with all the bullies, being called gay … being told to go kill myself. I’m also done with being pushed, punched, tripped. I LOVE YOU.” —L.J.

Associated Press/Photo by Dale G.Young/Detroit News Associated Press/Photo by Dale G.Young/Detroit News Protesters outside the Michigan State University Pavilion in East Lansing, Mich., on Monday

White nationalist draws protests, police in Michigan

Police issued more than 150 tickets to violent protesters Monday ahead of white nationalist Richard Spencer’s speech at Michigan State University. Protesters, some wearing masks, tried to prevent people from attending the event, pushing two ticket-holders to the ground and pelting another with sticks, dirt, and cans. Officers with the university’s police department made two dozen arrests, some for weapons violations. University administrators initially tried to block Spencer’s speech, scheduled shortly after a counterprotester died during violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last year. But Spencer’s supporters sued, and administrators eventually relented, pledging their support for free speech: “Here, ideas—not people—are meant to clash and to be evaluated based on their merits.” Spencer vowed to continue his college campus tour, although appearances in several states remain in limbo. A new attorney for Spencer announced he would drop a lawsuit against Ohio State University while continuing to pursue litigation against the University of Cincinnati. —L.J.

Back to class

West Virginia students are heading back to class today after a nine-day break. Teachers in all 55 school districts walked off the job Feb. 22 to protest a 2 percent pay raise. The educators, among the lowest paid in the nation, called the increase insufficient, noting it wouldn’t even cover the rising cost of healthcare. Gov. Jim Justice negotiated a 5 percent raise, but lawmakers balked, questioning where the money would come from. The legislature eventually approved the increase unanimously on Tuesday, extending it to other state employees, including state troopers and school service personnel. —L.J.

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is WORLD Digital’s managing editor and reports on education for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital.

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Comments

  • Bob C
    Posted: Wed, 03/07/2018 01:50 pm

    Obviously, the LGBT advocates are only concerned about their personal agenda. They could care less about the life Jacobe Taras, or any child for that matter, or grievous loss his parents are suffering right now.

    For the School Administrators Association of New York, the safety and protection of the child is superior to any temporary confusion the child might be experiencing as far as who they think they are.  The SAA of NY needs to get some guts, stand up for what is right and refuse to be bullied by the threats of the obvious insane thinking of the LGBT radicals.

  • JerryM
    Posted: Wed, 03/07/2018 05:56 pm

    I agree with the canary analogy.  This news from Harvard is serious.  It is remarkable how these instituitons, as so-called beacons of truth, have really become ideological spears.

  • Kiwi's picture
    Kiwi
    Posted: Wed, 03/07/2018 08:22 pm

    I am surprised to hear that there are still christian students making it in to Harvard, and other scchools like it, knowing how anti-christian they are.  If I sent a son or daughter there, it would only be as a missionary to a hostile culture, knowing that if they are 'outed' for following Jesus they would risk being given failing grades by leftist professors or expelled.  In Nazi times, Jewish students and professors were pushed out of the universities before things spread to all Jews..  Today's leftists remind me of the people of those days.  It became fashionable to push Jews out of society, and people wanted to show off how 'perfect' their intolerance of Jews was.  The leftists in power today are very self-righteous in their pride at stamping out all vestiges of christianity.  I'm sure other university elites are hoping to follow Harvard's example, so that they can enjoy a christian-free,    'one-think' campus.

  • Hans's picture
    Hans
    Posted: Thu, 03/08/2018 06:10 am

    This is a heavily stereotyped misrepresentation of the community at Harvard. I knew a number of evangelical Harvard undergraduates during my time there, and no one was trying to stomp out their existence. There really is no reason to fall prey to Godwin's law when tackling the thorny problem of free speech versus diversity protocols. 

  • Christian_Prof
    Posted: Thu, 03/08/2018 02:45 pm

    I grant that Kiwi's comment goes too far. Even at highly politicized campuses like Harvard, Dartmouth, Oberlin, UC Berkely and Madison, there are Christians who openly tout the worth of the Bible. But Hans, I'd like you to expand on how you think it is possible to grant rights to one party without taking rights from another party. Rights don't live in a vacuum.

  • Hans's picture
    Hans
    Posted: Fri, 03/09/2018 08:23 am

    Christian Prof, I agree that the balance here is complex. I tend to favor a hard push towards freedom of speech and association, which means that I am in favor of letting student organize without significant interference from their school administrations. I say this because I think that the free exchange of ideas ought to be the essential characteristic of a university, and because I think that outlawing certain perspective tends to push them underground, where bad ideas fester out of the light of day. That being said, I think it's still a complicated question, particularly when the issue in question is not whether students will be expelled for belonging to a particular group, but whether the university will sponsor those groups--meaning that they provide university own space, security, if not direct funding. I think it's apporpriate for universities to do this in general, but there are what seems to me to be obvious limitations on what is acceptable. Somewhat ironically, this came up while I was a student there and a student group decided to hold a Black Mass, which the university ended up shutting down (contrary to the rights of freedom of speech of those who wanted to use it as a protest against the confines of Christianity, but preventing Harvard from appearing to endorse the bigotry associated with the desecration of the Catholic Eucharist). This forced the event to be moved off campus without any sponsorship or publicity through university channels. My instict for these issues is still to favor a much more radical openness--permitting both the desecration of the sacraments and what amounts to the opposite end of the spectrum exclusivist evangelical policies--as a means of ensuring the free exchange of ideas at the cost of everyone's comfort.

  • Christian_Prof
    Posted: Fri, 03/09/2018 12:24 pm

    Well put. However, the logical conclusion to your ideas is allowing the amplification of extreme views - traumatizing a large number of people in the process and perhaps allowing said extreme views (on any side of an issue) to gain further traction. 

    What constitutes acceptable public speech? Could a Harvard student say that "our group is going to do XXX to all of our opponents until they are physically forced to YYY."?? Is threatening physical violence ok? If not, where do you draw the line? As you state: the balance is complex on this issue. How do you grant rights to the largest amount of people while infringing as lightly as possible with the desires (or rights?) of those who will be unhappy with any particular course of action? 

    This is the answer that SCOTUS has been in charge of supplying throughout the last 200 years - and even they have been inconsistent. 

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