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The Undergraduate Council’s grant of funds to the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship (HRCF) this week came after an about-face by College officials who this winter had questioned the group’s compliance with the College’s non-discrimination policy.
A few months ago, the debate centered on clauses in HRCF’s constitution which require the group’s officers “subscribe without reserve” to several tenets, including belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the existence of the Holy Spirit.
This week, officials say that the constitution is in accordance with College policy.
“Since we assume that all religious organizations, indeed organizations in general, will elect officers who believe in the overall purpose of the organization, we saw no need to make a change,” Associate Dean of the College David P. Illingworth ’71 wrote in an e-mail yesterday.
In a December e-mail, Illingworth expressed different sentiments on the group’s constitution.
“The sense of the [Committee on College Life] on this matter was quite clear: student groups should not discriminate for membership or in the choice of officers,” Illingworth wrote. “I have let the HRCF know of this opinion. I have offered to work with them to develop constitutional changes which would bring them into compliance.”
Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, who chairs the Committee on College Life (CCL)—a student-faculty committee charged with regulating student groups—also opposed HRCF’s leadership requirements in an e-mail in December.
“The simple principle that [all] members of student organizations should be eligible to be officers seems hard to oppose,” he wrote.
The decision to reinstate the group came after significant disagreement among members of CCL, who ultimately voted on the matter.
CCL decided in an e-mail vote before spring break to reinstate HRCF as an officially recognized College group without requiring the organization to change its provisions for members of the group’s executive committee.
But members of the committee questioned the way in which the vote was conducted.
CCL member Jennifer S. Axsom ’04 says she thinks the process should not have been conducted by e-mail, after discussion of the matter had been suspended for over three months.
“I did not agree with the way it took place. It was abnormal,” she said of the e-mail vote. “I don’t understand why another meeting couldn’t be called.”
She added that the months-long hiatus of debate followed by an abrupt e-mail vote also seemed to circumvent further discussion of the issue among CCL members.
Illingworth informed the CCL in March of the results of their e-mail vote, in which eight members voted to allow the constitutional provision to stand, while four voted against it.
“I definitely accept and respect the committee’s decision,” said CCL member Anthony C. Biagioli ’06, who voted against allowing the provision. “But I didn’t really feel the changes that were made were sufficient.”
Biagioli questioned the purpose of CCL’s examination of the matter.
“I’m not really sure what the point of the debate was, if these requirements for the leaders are all right,” Biagioli said.
Axsom said she also voted against allowing the provisions to stand.
“Since the clause strikes at least some of us as potentially discriminatory, I believe a sound, clear and logical explanation must be provided for such an exceptional clause,” Axsom said.
HRCF has agreed to include a provision in its constitution explicitly stating that all members of the Harvard community are welcome to join the organization. But requirements for the general membership were never at issue, according to Illingworth.
The original constitution stated that members need to demonstrate only a “willingness to cooperate in the purposes of the organization,” and made no doctrinal requirements.
It was the requirements for the group’s leaders that were the initial sticking point for College administrators, but the updated constitution makes no changes to those provisions.
The provisions in question came to the attention of College officials after a council meeting in November, when Undergradate Councilrepresentative Jason L. Lurie ’05 said that the council should not fund HRCF because of its possibly discriminatory policies.
In January, Lewis said that the clause was both inappropriate and superfluous, arguing that other religious groups had consistently chosen officers that subscribed to their faith without such a constitutional requirement.
But the inevitability of HRCF’s choosing Christian leaders—the same fact that some used to argue that the clause was unnecessarily restrictive—is now being used as a rationale to preserve the provision.
Illingworth wrote in an e-mail earlier this week that “there is little reason to split the hair between a clause in the constitution restricting what officers should believe and the expectation that any organization will inevitably select officers in support of its stated purposes.”
“Since HRCF, I assume, has identified upholding the principles of the Christian faith as part of their mission, it seems the selection of HRCF’s leadership would be exactly the same with or without the clause,” she said.
“I have not heard a persuasive reason for the necessity of the clause. Dozens upon dozens of student groups operate without such a clause,” Axsom added.
Despite Illingworth’s earlier statement of the CCL’s belief that “student groups should not discriminate for membership or in the choice of officers,” his statements this week have been focused on the formal permissibility of the clause.
“In any case, nothing is stated in the [Student] Handbook about how officers of student organizations are to be selected,” he said.
Deborah C. Morton ’03, a former member of HRCF’s executive board, said HRCF was happy with the outcome.
“I was glad. There were very few changes made,” Morton said.
HRCF’s current executive board had no comment for this article.
The revised constitution will be ratified at the end of the year by consensus of HRCF members, Morton said.
Lurie, the council representative who originally objected to HRCF’s constitution, said he disagreed with the decision.
“I’m very disturbed by the administration’s decision,” he wrote in an e-mail. “By opening up what should be firm barriers against discrimination to exceptions to organizations that want them, the very idea of non-discrimination is dealt a harsh blow.”
“Non-discrimination is pointless if it only applies to groups, like The Crimson or Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, which have no reason to discriminate,” he added.
—Staff writer Alexander J. Blenkinsopp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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