Undergraduate Council member Jason L. Lurie ’05 has attempted to persuade the council to deny funding to the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship (HRCF) on the basis of allegedly “discriminatory activities.”
He has made both legal and practical arguments in support of his position that HRCF does not deserve funding. The first is the legal argument that the written constitution of HRCF is not in accordance with the official council by-laws. The second is the practical argument that HRCF is actually a discriminatory organization. Both arguments have significant flaws.
In response to the legal argument, one must realize that HRCF’s constitution is not in violation of University policy; moreover, restriction of funding to groups like HRCF is actually a violation of the second half of the Undergraduate Council’s non-discrimination policy, which states that “in adhering to this policy, the Council will not advocate the restriction of anyone’s freedom of public speech, assembly, expression, or association.”
According to the HRCF constitution, anyone may attend meetings and be a member, regardless of religious beliefs. New officers are not elected, but chosen by old officers of the group, after careful consideration of the needs of the organization and the desires of the members who would like to become officers. If the constitution were altered to state that anyone could become an officer, the leadership of HRCF would continue to choose as officers only those members who agree with the principles of the organization.
The University policy, on page 428 of the Handbook for Students, states that all legitimate organizations must have “a constitution and by-laws whose membership clause shall not discriminate on the basis of race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, or physical disability.” Note that it only speaks of non-discrimination of membership. We do not believe that the constitution of HRCF violates the University policy, and the council exists to fund University-approved clubs. We are more than willing to add a clause to our constitution that makes explicit what is already implicit: that anyone is welcome to become a member. For those students who object in principle to their money being spent to fund organizations like ours, it is important to note that the $35 activity fee on the term bill is optional.
One might argue against a policy that prevents certain people from being leaders—whether explicitly stated or carried out in practice—as follows: if a majority of people in the organization would vote for a member to be an officer, then to deny this member a position on the basis of religious belief would seem discriminatory.
However, leadership of any organization is meant to uphold the stated principles of that organization, and imposing a doctrine such as “anyone can be on leadership, provided they win a certain percentage of club votes” on every club would have discriminatory consequences of its own. In particular, it would hurt groups that cater to a very small minority. If a large group of Christians didn’t like the existence of a Baha’i student group, which they greatly outnumbered, they could join the group and vote Baha’i believers out of leadership. Democrats could do the same to the College Greens. Majorities would have the power to ensure that minority groups didn’t exist, a clear restriction of “assembly, expression, and association.” Failing to allocate money on the grounds that not everyone is allowed to be in leadership is a violation of the council by-laws.
These are, of course, extreme examples of what could happen with such a policy in place, and it is unlikely that any group would ever interfere with another group in this manner. Why? Because most people recognize the legitimacy of student groups that fulfill various needs, whether they are religious, political or ethnic.
Although not specifically related to the issue of council funding, Lurie makes a second argument that is worth addressing: he claims that HRCF is discriminatory in practice.
The charge against HRCF is based on a hypothetical situation. In reality, HRCF is an organization that actively promotes diversity of membership and strives to be an organization that is beneficial to students regardless of religious beliefs. It has hosted open lectures on topics such as mental health that have drawn students from many religious backgrounds.
In addition, HRCF tries to promote diversity and an awareness of the issues that surround discrimination in areas other than religion. We are one of the most ethnically diverse organizations on campus, and we frequently hold discussions on how, as a group and as individuals, we can make people of all backgrounds feel welcome.
The HRCF executive board believes that there is neither a legal nor a practical argument for denying funding to HRCF. We also hope that the students of Harvard understand that it is not and has never been our intention to exclude anyone from participation in our organization. In fact, we hope that many of you will decide to learn more about us by attending our weekly events.
Lara M. Buchak ’03 is a philosophy and mathematics concentrator in Winthrop House. She is on the executive board of the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship.