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Strange Bedfellows?

Strange Bedfellows?
January 4, 2006

Last May, Ann Schrooten, a former temporary music instructor and interim director of the liturgical choir at the University of St. Thomas wanted to take her lesbian partner and their son on a class trip to France. Ultimately, after students at the Roman Catholic institution in Minnesota complained to the campus ministry, university officials told her that the proposed arrangement created a “moral dilemma” and that she would have to change the travel plans. She chose not to take the trip and no longer works for the university, although officials said that she was not asked to leave because of this situation.

“In denying Schrooten’s request, the university said it would not be appropriate for an unmarried partner -- homosexual or heterosexual -- to travel with the director of the choir, which is sponsored by the Campus Ministry office and the music department,” according to a statement released by the university in November. “As a Catholic university, St. Thomas espouses the values and the teachings of the Catholic Church on the sacrament of marriage.”

That ideology has now led to problems this month for two heterosexual professors who had spent two years planning a winter term trip with 12 students to study refugee and human rights issues in Australia. The two business professors, Ellen Kennedy, who has been at the university for 19 years, and Leigh Lawton, a 27-year veteran of St. Thomas, were initially scheduled to be in Australia this month.

However, because they have lived together for the past 12 years, university officials found their travel plans to be inappropriate. They asked the couple to book separate rooms for the trip, but the professors took issue with that option. The professors dropped out of the trip and other faculty members replaced them.

“We’re a couple,” Kennedy said Monday. “We felt that they were asking us to behave in a way that is against the values of our relationship.

“I am very disappointed because I don’t think that the students will get to have the experience we had planned for them,” she added. “I, too, am disappointed because I’m not able to teach an exciting and innovative course.”

The couple had previously traveled in the company of St. Thomas students on two occasions, in 2002 and 2003 -- before the Schrooten case occurred. They were not asked to sleep in separate rooms on those occasions.

Doug Hennes, vice president of university relations, said Monday that he wasn’t sure that St. Thomas would have raised the issue with Kennedy and Lawton had the Schrooten case not happened. “We don’t discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation,” he said.

But that’s not how Schrooten viewed her situation. In fact, she filed a grievance last year with St. Thomas over how the university handled the issue. The university’s Employment Personnel Committee ultimately found no basis for Schrooten’s claim of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“The committee did find, however, that some of St. Thomas’s published policies are ambiguous about, if not silent on, whether the conduct of staff and faculty members who have responsibility for students must model the Catholic values of the institution,” according to a November statement by the university. “As a result, the committee recommended that St. Thomas bring clarity to this issue.”

Hennes admitted that the official policy of the university still needs scrutiny. “What happens when you have two non-married faculty members going to a conference who share a room to save on expenses?” he asked, noting that the university lacks clear guidelines on such a situation.

Kennedy said that she and Lawton are hopeful that “a policy for people like us and for people like Ann” would be possible.

Robert Destro, a professor of law and founder of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion at Catholic University of America, said that “the university is on pretty strong grounds as long as it is applies its guidelines equally to men and women.”

“Basically, this has been happening at public and private high schools for a long time,” said Destro. “As long as the institution is being even-handed, it can apply these type of rules.”

Destro said that it’s important for professors to really understand what they’ve signed up for when they’re hired by an institution.

After 19 years at St. Thomas, Kennedy, for one, thought she knew her institution. “The faculty as a whole is very concerned about this situation,” she said.  “Many of them live in nontraditional relationships, and many want to know where the line will be drawn.”

Kennedy also said that, perhaps in a show of support, about 25 percent of the students who were expected to attend the Australia trip dropped out of the course before departure.  

Hennes said Monday that a university task force, which will be composed of administrators and faculty, will complete its work on reviewing university policies sometime during the spring semester, which begins on January 30.

 

 

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