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Op-ed | In response to Rev. Kepler

Published: Monday, February 11, 2013

Updated: Monday, February 11, 2013 07:02

In response to interim University Chaplain Reverend Patricia Budd Kepler’s quotes in the Feb. 6 Daily article “Tufts Christian Fellowship wavers in pursuit of exemption from non-discrimination policy”, we, as members of the Coalition Against Religious Exclusion (CARE), would like to clarify why we oppose the Dec. 5 Committee on Student Life (CSL) ruling regarding student religious groups (SRGs).

 
The policy, as outlined in a Dec. 5 email sent to the entire student body, states: “From this point forward, all SRGs must justify on doctrinal grounds any departures from Tufts’ nondiscrimination policy ... that their leadership positions require. The University Chaplain will evaluate the justification, and if satisfied that the described criteria for leadership are required by a given religion, will allow the SRG to apply to the TCUJ for recognition.”
 
Kepler’s comments last week only underscore why CARE has been so actively fighting against this policy.
 
According to the aforementioned feature in the Daily, “Kepler said that she does not plan to press any student religious group seeking an exemption to specify its religious doctrine to the utmost detail.”
 
 Kepler added: “I am not in a position, and I don’t think our other Chaplains are in a position, to require people to defend, expand on or interpret their faith tradition to somebody within the Chaplaincy. For instance, if the Protestant group says ‘our leaders need to be Christian’, I’m not going to come back at them and say, ‘What do you mean by Christian?’… That could mean a lot of different things.”
 
And there’s the rub: “Christian” could — and does — mean many, many different things. The job of many University administrators involves cultivating leadership within students, while the job of a chaplain or religious leader — regardless of locale — includes aiding in others’ spiritual growth. As an interim University Chaplain, Rev. Kepler’s job involves both of those responsibilities and navigating how they intersect. It other words, she must be able to ask those difficult questions and to foster conversation about what it means to be Christian, what it means to be a leader, and what it means to be a Christian leader. It is not her job to accept without due diligence a “Basis of Faith” that allows a University financed and/or recognized group to have written requirements for membership or leadership; the vision of the Chaplaincy is to ensure that the campus is a safe, welcoming and affirming space for students of all beliefs.
 
The nondiscrimination policy of Tufts is rooted in the wisdom of providing an environment that creates a space built on social equity in the hopes that all will be treated as equal under the eyes of the university. The CSL decision allows this aspect of the nondiscrimination policy to be eroded and replaced with a thin veil of forced separation between people who disagree on what are arguably minor differences in religious practice of belief within an umbrella religious community. In allowing for both legitimized discrimination — through the justification of separation — and a redefinition of what a nondiscrimination policy means, the CSL decision is a hugely negative representation of the values and principles of Tufts. Rev. Kepler’s willingness to allow intra-group discrimination without even a modicum of transparency or questioning adds further salt to the wound. Additionally, the direct contradiction of the CSL policy by the Chaplaincy seems to overlook and trivialize the danger and damage of discrimination on individual, institutional and social levels.
 
This prospect alone is frightening, but the policy itself is problematic with or without a chaplaincy willing and able to ask tough questions of SRGs. A nondiscrimination policy should be inviolable — any “justifiable” exemption based on an uncritical review of doctrine renders it meaningless and leaves many students feeling unsafe on campus and unprotected by their university.
A common defense for such a policy is based on the unfounded fear of a “hostile takeover” of a group or “threat to religious identity” on campus.
 
However, open elections simply ensure that anyone is allowed to run for a leadership position without discrimination; they do not ensure that they will win. If individuals within a group choose not to vote for someone they do not think represents them, that is their prerogative. But it is not up to the current leadership of Tufts Christian Fellowship or InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA staff members to decide eligibility requirements based on their interpretation of faith. Elections guarantee that the spirit of a community evolves — or does not evolve — with its members. Forcing leaders’ beliefs to stay static is stifling for both an SRG and the campus community at large. Allowing groups to apply to discriminate at the University Chaplain’s discretion is simply putting the power to interpret doctrine into hands of the few rather than the conscious of the SRG community.
 
The history of theology is the history of change. A changing understanding of the human condition, both past and present, leads and has led to changing understandings of divinity, morality and spirituality. No modern belief — scientific, religious, or otherwise — is immune to this fact. If members of a university chaplaincy are unable to recognize this, they should reconsider their personal ability to successfully aid in the development of students’ spirituality and leadership. Growth is inherently defined by change, even when the exact result is unknown; however, if we allow ourselves to be ruled by our fear of the unknown, we inevitably stifle our own growth.
 
We understand that members of TCF are working to resolve this issue, and we are encouraged that this matter is being taken seriously; these are important questions for all of us to consider. These debates are not just occurring in Dewick-MacPhie Dining Hall, Goddard Chapel and Mayer Campus Center, but across the United States on many college campuses. The CSL decision was an attempt at an “easy fix” to a very complex debate and will carry with it long-term consequences if left on the books, even if TCF, or any other religious groups, declines to make use of the policy. Our goal at CARE is to facilitate the discussion of reconciling these issues in the hopes that policies that allow for the continued discrimination of specific identities will be understood as inherently flawed, and can be discontinued once and for all.
 
CARE invites all members across Tufts’ campus to engage with us in this dialogue. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, or would simply like to chat, we invite you to contact us via Facebook and Twitter or seek us out in person.
 
Kris Coombs (LA ’09, GSAS ’11, ’12) can be reached at Kris.Coombs@tufts.edu. Martine Kaplan is a senior majoring in international relations. She can be reached at Martine.Kaplan@tufts.edu. Duncan MacLaury is a senior majoring in history. He can be reached at Duncan.MacLaury@tufts.edu

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