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When discrimination is necessary for diversity
Groups — religious or otherwise — need to be able to define themselves
 
Efforts to adjudicate diversity on campus can veer into the absurd.
Efforts to adjudicate diversity on campus can veer into the absurd. (Facebook.com/Bowdoin College)

Over a decade ago, the college I attended had a student group that existed to change its purpose every semester. Collegiate memories are an inexact thing, but I recall that it was once a Nietzschean Hole Diggers Club and used its budget to buy shovels. You know, for digging holes in the ground while discussing the transvaluation of values. In another semester it was a Hippie Hygiene club that gave out bars of soap to people who were deemed in need of an insulting gesture.

What would have been even stranger, though, is if my college had required the club to allow a Lockean Ditch Repairer or an unwashed tree-hugger to lead it.

This scenario is very real for others. The New York Times reports that an Evangelical group at Bowdoin College has refused to comply with the college's nondiscrimination policies, which are applicable to all groups that use student funding, have regular access to school facilities, and receive money from the student activity fund. This means student groups must allow all willing students (regardless of race, creed, and sexual orientation) to participate and be eligible to lead it. The Evangelical group is fine with anyone participating, but it wants to require leaders to profess to what they see as the essential dogmas and moral teachings of the Christian faith.

The Bowdoin Evangelicals are not the first group of Christians to balk at a nondiscrimination policy, although most religious campus groups manage to live within them.

It's easy to see why schools adopt these policies. It takes the onus of deciding which forms of discrimination are permissible out of their hands. Do student associations and professors really want to debate into the night whether Hillel can exclude anti-Zionists in principle, or whether someone is really "black enough" to lead the Black Student Union? Of course not.

But discrimination is necessary for any social mission to take place. You have to decide whether you are gathering to dig ditches, to start a book discussion group, or to "know God, love God, and serve him in this world" like the Baltimore Catechism says. The question for student groups is whether that discrimination should be written into the charter — intrinsic to the group and beyond the wishes of a majority — or should merely form part of the "mission statement," an accidental property.

Ultimately what these religious student groups are deciding is whether to trust that the democratic process will allow them to continue their social mission. Those that are unsure, or simply think that it is unseemly or wrong to put their principles up for votes, try to change or leave the process.

This shouldn't surprise us. The hottest political rhetoric is about putting certain principles beyond democratic adjudication. When someone shouts, "This is my First Amendment right," they are saying that the issue is beyond the vagaries of democratic jabbering. "My body, my choice," "My house, my castle," etc.

It's notable that Bowdoin's Evangelicals are a group that claims about 25 regular participants in a campus of 1,800 students. If, say, a group of unusually exercised Unitarian students found this "three Persons in one Godhead" stuff so offensive they wanted to deny those evangelicals student funding, they would only need to organize a dozen or so students to vote the Trinity out of the group's doctrinal commitments.

In other words, it's not hard to imagine an Evangelical group being shouted down.

Hilariously, the director of religious and spiritual life at Bowdoin, Rev. Robert Ives, said he hoped the evangelical students would stay on campus, since it is a "sanctuary" and "they need to have their faith challenged." Sanctuary is an odd thing to claim for a campus that can't accommodate their self-definition. He doesn't seem to recognize that this decision is a direct challenge to their faith. There are none so blind, etc. In all likelihood, a local church will take them in.

For now, at least. Some citizens do wish the principles of nondiscrimination, and by extension the mechanism of democracy, to reach deeper into religion. A few years ago, legislators in Connecticut floated a proposal to legally require the Catholic Church to govern itself along lines more akin to congregationalist bodies, with the local bishops only having nonvoting rights on parish decisions. It died before a vote.

Luckily, the Supreme Court has tended to hit these proposals hard, as it did in the 2012 case Tabor vs. EEOC. The court affirmed that religious organizations were allowed to choose leaders who belonged to their own religion. In other words, it allowed the very kind of discrimination that creates real diversity. If only student associations could do the same.

 
Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.

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