Tufts Christian Fellowship Re-Recognized by Student Government

A Christian student group at Tufts University was "re-recognized" by a branch of student government Wednesday after having been stripped of its official status for alleged anti-gay discrimination last month.

The Tufts Christian Fellowship (TCF) successfully appealed for re-recognition to the Tufts University Committee on Student Life.

Last month, Julie Catalano, a bisexual member of TCF, filed a complaint with the Tufts Community Union Judiciary (TCUJ), one of the three branches of Tufts' student government, after TCF's Senior Leaders' Team refused to consider her for a leadership position.

The team said they turned down Catalano on the grounds that she believes a homosexual lifestyle is consistent with Biblical teaching--a belief the group sees as contradictory to its fundamental tenets.

But the judiciary group said TCF's decision constituted discrimination.

In an emergency meeting April 13, the TCUJ revoked TCF's status as an official student group, effectively stripping the group of its rights to funding, campus classrooms and the Tufts name.

Claiming that it had not received a proper hearing, TCF appealed the decision to the Committee on Student Life, a group made up of students and faculty members that rules on issues of academic dishonesty and appeals to student government decisions.

Neither TCF nor Catalano was present at the April 13 emergency meeting of the seven-person TCUJ.

On Wednesday, the Committee on Student Life decided TCF's complaint had merit. Exercising a right that has not been used in more than four years, the committee reversed TCF's de-recognition.

Omitting comment on the merit of either party's case, the document focused on the procedural question of whether TCUJ did in fact deny a hearing to TCF.

At TCUJ's April 13 meeting, after the initial vote to de-recognize TCF failed to garner a majority vote from the six members present, another vote was held to recall the initial vote because of "hastiness," according to the meeting's minutes.

A single TCUJ member switched his position in the revote, allowing TCF to be officially de-recognized and stripped of all its privileges.

The TCUJ believed its unusual procedure--acting without hearing the arguments of the parties involved--was warranted "based on the need to prevent further expenditures of [Tufts Community Union] resources and on our perceived need to bring closure to this controversy for the community," according to an April 18 letter.

But TCF members questioned whether TCUJ's decision complied with university policy.

According to the Tufts student handbook, the only situation in which TCUJ is allowed to impose penalties or other disciplinary procedures without conducting a hearing is "on a temporary basis, pending the outcome of a hearing or appeal, when the nature of the situation indicates that there is an immediate danger to the well-being of an individual or the campus community or when warranted by other special circumstances."

Even under such circumstances, the evidence of such a clear and present threat must be "irrefutable" before the TCUJ can act prior to the serving of due process.

Members of the Committee on Student Life said they did not believe that the one-paragraph statement from Catalano on which TCUJ's decision was based constituted irrefutable evidence of discrimination.

Now, pending a hearing, the TCUJ could still investigate Catalano's complaint and again de-recognize TCF.

However, if the TCUJ does choose to follow up, it will have to do so next year, as Tufts' spring semester has already ended.

The delay presents difficulties for TCUJ and for TCF, both of which are electing new leaders for the fall, because the discussion will be continued by students who had no part in the initial decision.

The only returning participants on either side are Jody and Curtis Chang, chaplains to TCF and staff members for InterVarsity, a national Christian group with which TCF is affiliated.

Jin Park, a member of this year's TCF Senior Leaders' Team, said he is confident, however, that next year's team will share the same position should debate pick up next fall.

TCUJ representatives could not be reached for comment this week, as Tufts' semester has already ended.

InterVarsity officials say they fully support TCF's position.

Steve Haynor, president of InterVarsity, said the Tufts chapter acted wisely.

"Students at Tufts have really concluded that organizations, particularly religious organizations, have a right to exercise their beliefs in a way that is consummate with the campus setting," Haynor said. "Academic pluralism requires that people not be silenced."

Curtis Chang, who is an area director for InterVarsity, said the student government should distinguish between judging people and judging their ideas.

"Julie Catalano was denied leadership because of her religious beliefs, not her orientation," he said. "Any heterosexual who rejects the view that sexual activity should take place in the context of a marriage covenant between husband and wife would also be ineligible for leadership."

Because the Changs are not students, the Committee on Student Life questioned their prominent role in TCF's decision to exclude heterodox students--that is, students whose beliefs contradict the orthodox perspective--from the group's leadership team.

Ohene Asare and Jin Park, Tufts seniors who are members of the Senior Leaders' Team, said the team's decision not to consider Catalano for a leadership position was a shared one, however.

Allegations had surfaced that the Changs were spearheading the campaign without adequately consulting students.

But Asare said that within the chapter, it is students who control group decisions, and the group does not take action on a position unless the leadership team is unanimous.

"The highest level of decision-making is the students, [the whole Senior Leaders' Team] appoints the senior leadership," Asare said. "But when this became a national issue, it became larger than Tufts. [The Changs] are acting as representatives of InterVarsity International."

The Tufts case is only one of at least five cases nationwide in which schools have adopting language and policies regarding the way religious groups choose their leaders.

The Tufts case has garnered an unusual amount of media attention, with articles by prominent columnists like John Leo.

Haynor says the attention comes from the larger ideological question in the case.

"Students were very aggressive in going after the issues," he says. "They saw this as an issue of religious freedom with significant impacts."

Tufts administrators and the CSL declined to comment because a hearing for the case is still pending.