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Op-ed | The CSL’s decision is deeply flawed

Published: Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 02:01

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The title of Philip Starks and Rebecca Spiewak’s Dec. 6 op-ed “Balancing Religious Diversity and Nondiscrimination” is patently false regarding the Committee on Student Life’s (CSL) decision to create a policy addressing Student Religious Groups (SRGs) and their interaction with Tufts’ non-discrimination policy. Though the policy comes at a time of great internal strife over the values of religious freedom and non-discrimination (terms which should not be placed in an “either-or” situation, for they are not mutually exclusive) at Tufts, the CSL’s actions adversely affect members of the student body and of multiple SRGs on campus. 

The false dichotomy this policy creates between “membership” and “leadership” is inherently discriminatory: it implicitly forces on SRG’s an unequal, hierarchical model where leaders are seen as “exemplars of that particular religion.” This hierarchy creates the sense that students are above one another in something akin to spiritual status, forcing incoming members of an organization to look to the leadership as “exemplars” of the prescribed belief, whether the members wish to or not. I say “implicitly forces” based on the op-ed’s treatment of the term “exemplars.” It should be noted that the language of “exemplars” has been consistently used by, and only by, InterVarsity Tufts Christian Fellowship (IVTCF). In my many interactions with various SRGs on campus, no other group has used that terminology to describe their student leaders. This direct pulling of terminology from the plaintiff of the original CSL case is troubling: there is an obvious conflict of interest. 

Starks and Spiewak write, “The leaders of SRGs are considered the exemplars of the core religious beliefs of that group’s particular religion. Their job is to not only guide the SRG itself, but also to teach and model their faith for others within it.” This reinforces the idea of a monopoly on religious truth by those who have privilege within the religion. It stifles the reality of pluralism in how different members of religious communities view their religion. I do not deny that the idea of an exemplar, particularly a spiritual one, is important for many people; this however is achievable through the normal democratic process of elections. Students whom the majority of an SRG feel are fit for leadership, whether that means they are excellent planners, superb treasurers, or religious exemplars, will be elected to leadership positions naturally. Allowing SRGs to discriminate when selecting leaders prevents change within a group. Because leaders are the only ones able to attain or dissolve exceptions, there is little likelihood that groups can change and grow in leadership as new students come to the Hill and replace their graduated peers. 

That student groups on campus, whether religious or not, should provide transparency in what they believe, support, and stand for is an idea that I uphold. My main problems with the CSL policy’s treatment of transparency are as follows. 

The policy uses vague language when requesting an “explicitly state[d] and justif[ied]” reason for an exception if “leadership criteria are in conflict with Tufts’ nondiscrimination policy.” This sets a bad precedent for SRGs to define their own reasons for exceptions, paving the way for a return to discriminatory policies by religious groups, as demonstrated in 2000 when Julie Catalano was denied a leadership position on the Tufts Christian Fellowship because she chose to “act on her [homosexual] impulse.” 

Another issue is how “this information must be easily obtained by any interested community members” according to the official TCU decision. Though I directly brought my issue with this language to the attention of Spiewak she does not share my concern, which I find distressing. I believe that, while the CSL means well in this statement, the reality is that “easily obtained” will come to mean in the SRG’s Constitution and nowhere else. At a meeting on December 5 with Spiewak, Interim University Chaplain Reverend Patricia Budd Kepler, and members of other SRGs on campus, Spiewak and Kepler told us that transparency meant constitutional transparency only. While this would extend to the Chaplaincy website eventually hosting each SRG’s Constitution, in addition to a separate list of exceptions, this does not increase the policy’s potency regarding transparency. It makes the campus comfortable that the information is available and obtainable, easily even, with a few clicks of one’s mouse. This is deceptive because the number of students — particularly first years, who interact with multiple SRGs during the Fall Activities Fair — who would visit the Chaplaincy’s website, find a group’s specific Constitution, and read through it is minimal. As a student who interacts with many groups on campus, religious or not, I have only read the Constitutions of two groups: I am on their executive boards. I have not read other groups’ Constitutions because I never felt I would need to in order to understand what a group stood for; what they told me could be taken at face value. Most student groups at Tufts are incredibly open about their stances, through their name, literature, or interactions with members. The CSL’s new policy allows SRGs to actively step back from providing the “truth in advertising”, to quote the Starks and Spiewak op-ed, while still remaining true to the letter of the policy.

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