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Lukewarm Welcome

May 11, 2005

Boston College wants gay students and employees to know that they are welcome at the institution, but it won’t ban discrimination against them.  

New wording along those lines will soon be added to the university’s anti-bias policy -- after months of discussions at the Jesuit institution, and an April rally in which more than 1,000 students -- many with the "=" symbol painted on their arms or faces -- demanded that the college bar discrimination against gay people.

The current anti-bias statement leaves sexual orientation out of the explicit nondiscrimination clause, adding later that, “Boston College is in compliance with applicable state laws providing equal opportunity without regard to sexual orientation.” But religious institutions are largely allowed to practice hiring discrimination legally, so compliance with state laws offers little protection.  

The new statement, which is expected to pass a final administrative review, is overtly more hospitable to students and employees regardless of sexual orientation, saying the college “extends its welcome in particular to those who may be vulnerable to discrimination on the basis of their race, ethnic or national origin, religion, color, age, gender, marital or parental status, veteran status, disabilities or sexual orientation." The new policy, however, does not directly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"It definitely isn’t perfect, and students are committed to continuing work," said Mike Yaksich, a senior at the college and former director of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues for the student government. “But it’s a positive first step that was long overdue.”

The change comes at a time when gay rights issues have erupted at many religious colleges. In April, a tenured professor left Hope College, a Michigan institution affiliated  with the Reformed Church in America, amid rising tension with religious conservatives over his outspokenness on gay rights. That came shortly after Virginia Baptist groups voted to withdraw support from Averett University over a student group's gay pride event. Then, in late April, about 60 students began “Equality Ride,” a protest tour planned of religious and military colleges where students could face punishment for being gay.

At Boston College, students and faculty members have been pushing for full inclusion of “sexual orientation” in the nondiscrimination statement for years. “But this year we got discussion groups going that really mobilized people on campus,” Yaksich said.  

The university agreed that it was time for the changes. “We think this language is more reflective of life on campus,” said Jack Dunn, a university spokesman. “Gay faculty and students thrive here. It’s an extremely tolerant campus.”

But while many of the students involved in brokering the changes maintain that only the first step has been made, the university may be willing to bend only so much. “We made it clear we were not going to forfeit our rights under state law to uphold our Catholic traditions,” Dunn said.

In March, the Rev. William Leahy, Boston College's president, wrote a letter to The Heights, the student paper, defending the institution’s right to keep aspects of the nondiscrimination policy. “Adding the words 'sexual orientation' could result in outside authorities interpreting the nondiscrimination clause in ways that would require BC to approve and fund initiatives or activities that conflict with its institutional commitments," he wrote. “As president of BC, I have the obligation to safeguard the university from such intrusion.”  

To that end, the new statement reads: “It is the policy of Boston College, while reserving its lawful rights where appropriate, to take actions designed to promote the Jesuit, Catholic principles that sustain its mission and heritage.”

Students involved in the new statement were also hoping to get rid of the separate “sexual orientation” later on in the same paragraph that pledges, “to comply with all state and federal laws prohibiting discrimination in employment and in its educational programs on the basis of a person’s race, religion, color, national origin, age sex, marital or parental status, veteran status, or disability,  and to comply with state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation.”

“That grammatical separation of sexual orientation from everything else is a symbolic separation we wanted to change,” said Nick Salter, a sophomore. “It could very easily be made into one coherent statement, and the university’s legal rights still protected.”

“The courts have protected the right of a religious institution to uphold their ethos even though they get federal funding,” added the Rev. John Howard, a professor in the college’s honors program and one of more than 250 faculty and staff members who signed a petition supporting a policy change. “So worrying about a lawsuit doesn’t make sense in this case.”

Dunn said much of the administration views the compromise as a resolution of the issue. But many students and faculty members want discussions to continue. “We have to understand the demands placed on the administration with BC being a Catholic school,” said Grace Simmons, who was the student government president until recently. “But I think most people expect more change in the future.”

Simmons was one of the authors of an opinion piece in The Heights noting some of the successes of the new statement, as well as some lingering dissatisfaction.  

With the statement change, and the large rally, many students think the push for gay rights at Boston College is gaining momentum. “Especially at a Jesuit school we’re educated to notice injustice,” said Salter. “And we’re going to continue to fight that.”

While some faculty members are unhappy with statement change, professors said they are in the vast minority. “If we’re trying to teach our students justice,” said Father Howard, “then they’re obviously learning.”

 

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