Georgetown Law's New Precedent

Jenny Woodson is no stranger to controversial causes. It's just that the first-year law student didn't expect that, at the most stressful time of her year, she'd be at the center of a divisive case about adherence to religious principles.

April 6, 2007

Jenny Woodson is no stranger to controversial causes. It's just that the first-year law student didn't expect that, at the most stressful time of her year, she'd be at the center of a divisive case about adherence to religious principles.

Like classmates before her at the Georgetown University Law Center, Woodson accepted an unpaid summer position with an organization that supports abortion rights -- Planned Parenthood's public policy and litigation department. When asked during her job interview if she could secure funding for the work, Woodson said she wasn't sure. Would a Jesuit institution provide financial support for a student to work there?

Not a problem, Woodson's interviewer told her. Georgetown had a history of funding similar summer internships. So she expected no trouble when she turned in a 50-word job description to the campus group that provides fellowships to students participating in public interest jobs.

But in late March, Woodson was told that T. Alexander Aleinikoff, dean of the Law Center, had decided that the campus group could not fund her internship. (Georgetown helped Woodson find a nonprofit organization that plans to support her work.) 

"It wasn't a change in policy," Aleinikoff said. "As we became more involved in the funding and more aware of the project, it was clear that the university could not fund advocacy of abortion rights. There's a very narrow exception in an area that is central to the core identity of the university."

Equal Justice Foundation, the student-run group that provides the fellowships, receives some funding from alumni and outside sources. But a growing percentage -- this year more than $100,000 -- of the money comes from the Law Center, which collects and distributes all donations.   

Woodson is upset with what she calls Georgetown's inconsistencies. She said it is intellectually dishonest for the Law Center to claim its action is motivated by a desire to follow Catholic teachings.

"If Georgetown wants to be a Catholic University it has the freedom to identify as such," she said. "If the school wants to abide by Catholic doctrine it should do so consistently and prevent all activities the Church disagrees with. This includes prosecutors' offices that impose the death penalty, gay rights organizations, political candidates and judges that hold positions that disagree with the Catholic church, military law organizations and human rights organizations (the majority of which support reproductive rights, as well).

 “When we apply to Georgetown Law, the most you hear about the Jesuit tradition is that [the school] supports students doing work in the public interest," she added. "If I ever knew that taking part in women's rights issues would lead to a chilling effect, I don’t know if I would have ever considered coming here.”

Days after learning of the Law Center's decision, Woodson approached the student group Law Students for Choice, which is not officially recognized by the university. Joy Welan, the group's president, said she agrees with Woodson that Georgetown mishandled the situation.

"We think this is a major change from what [the school] has done in the past, and it interferes with students' career development," Welan said. "If [Georgetown] is saying it is instituting this policy because the church demands it, then why aren't changes happening across the board?"

"The school has tried to be too covert about its affiliation with the Catholic church," she added. "We want [it] to come out and be honest about what [it wants] to be."

Welan said the university still allows student groups like hers to bring to campus speakers whose positions differ from the official Jesuit policy, and that while it won't provide funding for those speakers, the institution will set aside space, which Georgetown has already paid for.

Georgetown, she said, has taken a "piece-by-piece" dismantling approach rather than dealing with the issue of abortion rights holistically. For instance, she said before the academic year began, her group lost the right to have the ".edu" at the end of its e-mail account.

"We're concerned that this one issue is being targeted and wondering how far this is going to expand in the future," Welan said.

Deborah Epstein, associate dean for clinical programs and public interest, said Georgetown is trying to make its funding restrictions as narrow as possible so that students can still take part in the vast majority of public interest work.

"The law school is being quite clear -- we cannot provide our own funding through EJF or other means for students to work at an organization whose primarily purpose is abortion rights advocacy," she said. "That's all we're saying."

Daniel Hughes, president of the student group Progressive Alliance for Life, said he is among the students who have confronted administrators with concerns over summer internship funding. He said he threatened to take the matter to the church officials if action wasn't taken. Aleinikoff said Georgetown's decision had nothing to do with external pressure.

Hughes said the university is finally taking the appropriate action by honoring church teachings.

“I don’t think Georgetown needs to enact Catholic doctrine on every issue -- that wouldn’t be desirable," he said. "But the most bedrock Catholic teaching is the protection of life. No advocacy group that works against that principle should be supported by the university."

Hughes said he doesn't understand the complaints. Students, he said, need to realize that there are tradeoffs to coming to a Jesuit institution, such as the fact that some alumni donate because they support certain beliefs associated with the church.

“If this is finally a sign of them owning up to their commitment to honor the church, I’ll be impressed but surprised," he said. "This seems like a grudging, half-hearted commitment.”

Woodson, the law student, said she is also upset with the timing of Georgetown's decision. She said by waiting until late in the application process, the law school hamstrung EJF.  

“Almost every year someone has a job like this,” she said. “It should have been foreseen. If the school is going to make this decision, announce it in an open forum so students can understand what is going on and so people pledging money understand the new limitations.”  

Epstein, the associate dean, said it was an evolving decision that "could have been made any year.”

Georgetown is working on a new statement to clarify that EJF cannot fund future summer jobs involving abortion advocacy groups.

"This is a practical question that we are trying to resolve with prudence," Aleinikoff said. "Our policy is one of total free speech. We welcome a full discussion on campus, and speakers of diverse viewpoints are brought by student groups."


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