A column in Duquesne University's student newspaper in March set off months of debate over whether the Roman Catholic university in Pittsburgh could recognize a group for gay students -- something the student columnist said was needed, but not allowed. On Friday, in something of a compromise, the university recognized a gay straight alliance for the first time, but also stipulated rules that, among other things, bar it from protests or petitions against positions of the university or church teachings.
The announcement linked the decision to Duquesne's philosophy. "The university's core principles include treating all members of its community with dignity, compassion and respect," the statement said. "Duquesne fosters a supportive environment where the needs of all students -- including those historically marginalized by society -- are served."
The new policy was recommended by a panel appointed in September by Charles Dougherty, president of the university, and led by the Rev. Tim Hickey, executive director of mission and identity at the university. The new group will be allowed to create forums "for support and discussion regarding issues related to sexual orientation within the Catholic tradition," to promote social equity, to sponsor educational programs, and to form "a safe and supportive environment for interested members."
But the new group was also specifically barred from certain activities: "Activities that do not adhere to Catholic Church teachings will not be permitted. Sponsorship or support of programs that involve public protests, petitions or activities and events that conflict with university policy or that which the executive director for mission and identity determines to be positions or behavior that are inconsistent with the Spiritan mission and Catholic identity of Duquesne University are prohibited."
Duquesne's statement also stressed that the university was "not an endorsement of sexual activity, but rather, an effort to help prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation."
Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh was not involved in making the decision, but was kept informed about the development of the policy, and "indicated his support" for its "general direction," the university statement said.
While there has been strong student support for recognizing the group, there has also been opposition. In October, a student who believes that recognizing a gay group would violate the university's Catholic faith was found to have called gay people "subhuman" on a non-Duquesne Web site. The university ordered him to write an essay about homosexuality, and he has been refusing to do so, citing his rights to free expression.
Ryan Miner, the student, wrote recently in The Duke, the student newspaper, that the proposal for the gay straight alliance is "an attack on your faith and ideals," and predicted that it would lead to the university soon having to recognize groups in favor of abortion rights and premarital sex.
Matthew Pratter, the student whose column in March set off the debate, could not be reached for comment. But he told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he was pleased and surprised by the outcome and that he thought the group could do a lot of good -- even with the restrictions placed on it. "Gay people are people before they are gay, and the university is recognizing this," he said.
Professors also rallied behind the push to recognize the group, and more than 100 signed a petition urging the administration to do so. Fred Evans, a professor of philosophy who was among those who organized the petition, said that he was "very happy" with the university's decision to recognize the group.
The limits on its activities raise some concerns, he said, although he said a lot will depend on how those restrictions are enforced. For example, Evans said that he wasn't sure if the new student group would be allowed, for example, to discuss and endorse gay marriage, as he said the students should be permitted to do. "You want people to speak their mind at a university campus," he said.
Evans said that faculty members believed that it was essential to Duquesne's reputation that it recognize the group. "You can't be a real university without recognizing and respecting diversity," he said.