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As Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship (HRCF) leaders negotiate with administrators about bringing the student group’s constitution into accordance with College non-discrimination guidelines, similar situations on other campuses have drawn the attention of civil liberties advocates.
The uproar on Harvard’s campus arose because HRCF’s constitution requires officers to “subscribe without reserve to...principles of faith” that include belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the existence of the Holy Spirit.
Membership in HRCF is open to students of all faiths, however.
HRCF’s executive board will meet today with Associate Dean of the College David P. Illingworth ’71 to discuss what changes would bring them into compliance with the College’s guidelines, said Deborah C. Morton ’03, a member of HRCF’s executive board.
Illingworth wrote in an e-mail last month that the Committee on College Life believes that student groups should not discriminate when choosing officers.
According to the Faculty of Arts and Science Student Handbook, no official undergraduate organization may have a constitution that discriminates on the basis of creed or several other characteristics.
Illingworth did not rule out taking measures against HRCF for failure to revise its constitution.
“The College will not take any action until the HRCF has an opportunity to consider all of this and decide among themselves the best course to follow,” he wrote last month.
Since the Undergraduate Council first questioned HRCF’s doctrinal requirements for its leaders in November, the religious student group has not received funding from the council or the College.
The ongoing campus debate parallels situations that have recently arisen at two public universities—Rutgers University in New Jersey, and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Not Just at Harvard
Last month, an administrator from UNC-Chapel Hill wrote to the university’s branch of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship that the organization’s charter violates the university’s nondiscrimination policy.
InterVarsity is a national, interdenominational organization with chapters on over 500 campuses. Like HRCF, it requires its officers to adhere to Christian doctrines.
The letter to InterVarsity, written by Jonathan E. Curtis, the Student Union assistant director for student activities and organizations, said the organization would lose university recognition and funding if it did not eliminate the faith requirement for its leaders by the end of this month.
The UNC-Chapel Hill administration’s demands drew criticism from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based group that focuses on free-speech issues at colleges and universities throughout the country.
Thor L. Halvorssen, chief executive officer of FIRE, wrote in a letter last week to UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor James C. Moeser that the university’s demand on InterVarsity “denies its members the foundational rights of freedom of association, freedom of expression, and the free exercise of religion.”
“UNC-Chapel Hill obviously may not forbid a religious student organization from making discriminations based on issues of faith,” the letter continued. “We shall make a national issue of the First Amendment at UNC-Chapel Hill...”
Following this protest, Moeser protected InterVarsity’s status at UNC-Chapel Hill and said that funding and recognition would not be revoked.
“I believe that in this matter, preserving freedom of expression is the more crucial consideration,” Moeser said in a written statement. “Thus I have asked our staff to allow [InterVarsity] to continue to operate as an official recognized student organization.”
“I believe we can strike a balance here—one that is fair and legal,” he added.
Last month, Rutgers denied its chapter of InterVarsity university funding and access to campus buildings after it found the organization to be discriminatory.
FIRE filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court on behalf of InterVarsity against Rutgers, claiming that the university’s actions violated both the First and Fourteenth amendments of the Constitution. The suit is still pending.
Back At Harvard
Illingworth wrote in an e-mail yesterday that the situation at UNC-Chapel Hill is different from that at Harvard because InterVarsity is a national organization, while all College student groups cannot be affiliated with such national organizations.
Illingworth also wrote that he does not want any involved party to resort to legal action.
“My hope is that, here at Harvard, the situation would not need to be a legal matter, but rather a negotiation which ensures that all students are able to be a part of any College group,” he wrote. “This is all still a work in progress and I believe that we will be able to work out a solution amicably and collegially.”
The executive board of HRCF wrote in an e-mail to the organization’s members last night that “it is important that our constitution continues to state the necessity that the leaders of HRCF uphold and support the purpose of HRCF.”
The e-mail said that the College’s non-discrimination policy covers only membership, not leadership. It also asked group members for feedback, thoughts and prayers.
Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 wrote in an e-mail yesterday that the question at hand is whether members of the organization could and should be able to elect a non-Christian to a leadership position.
Lewis also wrote that he is confident that “every one” of the College’s religious student organizations “has consistently chosen leaders of their own faith without any constitutional clause requiring it.”
But Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy, said he disagreed with the College’s requirement that HRCF change its constitution.
“Harvard should really be embarrassed about this,” he said. “They’re creating a situation where Harvard is dictating how these people can be expressive.”
Victor D. Ban ’04, a member of HRCF, expressed a different sentiment.
“I initially felt that the nature of the organization justified this stipulation” that the leaders adhere to Christian tenets, Ban said.
After reading pieces on the HRCF on The Crimson’s editorial page, though, Ban said his opinion changed.
“I really feel that the complaint from the administration, if it is a formal complaint, is valid,” he said.
Ban also added that he believes the requirement on HRCF leaders could harm the group’s mission.
“To have the stipulation is detrimental to what HRCF is meant to be about,” he said. “The stipulation is an outgrowth of fear—of mistrust—of the non-Christian community at Harvard.”
HRCF’s executive board said in a written statement last night, “We believe strongly that a person’s religious convictions are a relevant factor when selecting him or her to lead a religious organization.”
In the statement, HRCF leadership said they have not settled upon any course of action.
The question of whether HRCF’s constitution complies with College policies arose after council representative Jason L. Lurie ’05 said providing funding to HRCF would violate the council’s constitution.
The council grant to HRCF was never approved.
Council Finance Committee member Joshua A. Barro ’05 said the council has approved a “provisional grant” that HRCF will receive after the College approves of the organization’s constitutional changes.
“It’s out of our hands,” Barro said. “The University has been very slow getting back to us.”
Morton said last month that the grant from the council is the group’s major source of funding, which defrays the costs of such activities as retreats.
—Staff writer Alexander J. Blenkinsopp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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