The Boston Phoenix November 23 - 30, 2000


When rights collide

A case at Tufts pits freedom of religion against gay rights. The way it's resolved could influence campuses nationwide.

by Kristen Lombardi

TUFTS students want the school's nondiscrimination policy strengthened.

For months now, Tufts University in Medford has captured the attention of private colleges across the nation -- but certainly not their envy. This small liberal-arts school has been embroiled in debate over a high-profile student complaint that pits religious freedom against gay rights.

It's a complicated case, and trying to understand it can seem like peeling an onion: just when you think you're done, you realize that there's another layer. One side has the Constitution behind it, specifically the First Amendment's right to the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech. The other is bolstered by local nondiscrimination laws. Yet the conflict between the two is so intricate that some gay-rights advocates have come out in support of evangelical Christians who disavow homosexuality. At the same time, religious leaders at Tufts, including a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest, have thrown their support behind gay and lesbian students. As Paula Ettlebrick of the Washington, DC-based National Gay and Lesbian Task Force observes, "The case is a classic dilemma that illustrates the long-standing tension between civil rights and civil liberties."

Campus strife

Gay students and faculty have long viewed Tufts as a welcoming, safe place. But that view was shattered when the student judiciary board ruled that a school evangelical group that had excluded an openly lesbian Christian from taking a leadership role could remain on campus. The ruling, in essence, said that the religious group was able to exclude the student because of her belief that being a lesbian is okay.

Says Howard Soloman, a history professor at Tufts for nearly three decades: "This ruling would never have happened with race, gender, or any other category. It has made gay and lesbian people here feel vulnerable, anxious, and even betrayed."

Thea Lavin, 21, an outspoken and openly gay senior, echoes the sentiment, saying, "The queer community assumed the university would protect us. . . . The ruling made us realize it was all an illusion."

Just hours after the decision became public, about 35 students from campus organizations including the Tufts Hillel, the Pan-African Alliance, and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered (LGBT) Collective formed a new group -- Tufts Students Against Discrimination (TSAD) -- to press the administration to stand firm against what they call an obvious misinterpretation of school policy.

And TSAD has kept up the pressure. Nearly every week, members have handed out literature that trumpets their cause, papered student hangouts with fliers, and erected 30-foot-long banners that declare WE'RE STILL HERE, END THE SILENCE, and WHERE'S OUR POLICY? before Ballou Hall, the heart of Tufts administration.

Their most dramatic action came on October 23, when some 500 students and faculty supporters gathered at the university library armed with a defiant attitude and posters that read STOP THE HATE and CAUTION: DISCRIMINATION AHEAD. From there, the crowd marched through the well-manicured quadrangle to Ballou, playing drums and chanting "2-4-6-8, we don't discriminate." They then delivered to Tufts University president John DiBiaggio petitions signed by 1300 students -- nearly 25 percent of the student body -- demanding that he uphold the "spirit" of the nondiscrimination policy.

DiBiaggio says he's "heartened" by the current activism around this case. "I'm glad to see this level of involvement from students," he says. At the same time, however, he is quick to dismiss the notion that the student-judiciary decision has somehow nullified school policy. As far as he's concerned, he says, "our policy is very clear on this issue."

DiBiaggio isn't alone in his sentiment. Sophomore Megan Liotta, 19, wrote a stinging article about TSAD for the weekly campus paper Primary Source, in which she likened the coalition's response to a "juvenile emotional reaction." Liotta points out that Tufts students who do find fault with the student-judiciary decision are actually the minority, albeit a highly vocal one. "Most students are uninformed about the ruling," she says, "but they got caught up in a debate that looks like a noble cause. It's very attractive to fight against discrimination."

Minorities, Liotta says, aren't the only ones feeling besieged. "It's tense for everyone," she explains. "For conservatives, too. If you're not wearing a gay-pride pin, you're labeled a bigot and a homophobe. The campus is very hostile right now."

-- Kristen Lombardi

The case was decided back in April, when an evangelical-Christian student group was stripped of its status as a legitimate campus organization because it had refused to allow a lesbian member to hold a leadership position. The decision, which was made by a seven-member student judiciary panel, sparked a deluge of mail from conservative religious groups and civil libertarians, who demanded that the university restore the group's standing. Last month, after an appeal and a closed-door, seven-hour hearing, the student judiciary reversed its decision.

For all intents and purposes, the controversy at Tufts should be over.

In many ways, however, it's only just begun.

In the past month, scores of letters to the editor and editorials have appeared in the school's three student publications, the Tufts Daily, the Observer, and the Primary Source. The Daily alone has published 10 opinion columns from students, arguing back and forth about the decision. For many, campus life has become polarized. Students are either for the ruling or against it -- and on both sides, people feel under attack. One student, a senior who has protested the most recent decision, goes so far as to characterize the climate on campus as a "domestic war," explaining, "The atmosphere is tense. Students are pitted against each other and the administration."

Tufts administrators, meanwhile, have issued two statements to the school community about the decision. On November 6, university president John DiBiaggio circulated an e-mail message to students, faculty, and staff, in which he recognized the recent outcry: "Some members . . . continue to be concerned about the university's commitment to tolerance, nondiscrimination, and protection of individual rights." He went on to "reaffirm unequivocally" that Tufts bars discrimination, but also made a clear attempt to appease both sides. "We support freedom of speech," he wrote. "We support freedom of religion. We support freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation."

Tufts University isn't the only academic institution facing such a conflict. In Vermont, students, faculty, and administrators at Middlebury College are considering whether to require its Christian Fellowship chapter to permit gays to hold leadership posts after a gay male student filed a complaint similar to the one at Tufts. And evangelical students at Grinnell College in Iowa had their campus status rescinded three years ago after they required student leaders to agree that sex should be engaged in only by heterosexual, married couples; the group hopes to regain recognition.

But the Tufts case seems to be a tipping point. The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report have written about it. An extensive May 16 report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly trade magazine, set off a wave of debate within academic circles. Professors and administrators from schools as far-flung as the University of Southern California, Mount Scenario College in Wisconsin, Duke University in North Carolina, and the University of South Florida sent letters to the Chronicle, and as many as 89 readers participated in the publication's Web-site chat forum on the case -- more than participated in any other chat forum this year.

Given all this attention, the university could set a nationwide precedent for how these cases are handled. If the administration overturns the latest decision by the student judiciary board, it could send a clear message about how it expects its nondiscrimination policy to be followed. Because Tufts is a private university, after all, the administration has the power to determine where it wants to put its money. "Tufts does have a right to decide viewpoint if it wants," Ettlebrick explains. "Ultimately, the university can say, `A group that discriminates doesn't belong on this campus.' " But by letting the decision stand, it could send another message.

Sheldon Steinbach, vice-president and general counsel at the Washington, DC-_based American Council on Education (ACE), explains that although academics haven't hung on every development, the Tufts case "has raised interesting practical and theoretical issues for colleges nationwide." According to Steinbach, campuses across the country have witnessed increasing numbers of openly gay and lesbian students -- and, at the same time, of conservative Christian organizations. So the underlying question being debated at Tufts -- whether a religious student group that views homosexual activity as inappropriate should be compelled to accept gay members as leaders -- is one that could arise anywhere. As Steinbach explains, "This case is an initial entrée into an area that might become contentious in upcoming years."

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