CSL unanimously upholds Judiciary TCF de-recognition, allows for religious exemption from nondiscrimination policy
TCF to remain “conditionally recognized,” given 60 days to reapply
A new university policy will allow student religious groups, including Tufts Christian Fellowship (TCF), to request University Chaplaincy permission for religious exemption from the university’s anti-discrimination clause in choosing their leaders when applying for TCU recognition.
The procedure was announced today as an official resolution in the appeal case TCF brought to the Committee on Student Life (CSL) after the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Judiciary voted last month to derecognize the group. It changes the guidelines for the Judiciary’s group recognition process to allow religious groups to argue for “justified departures from the Tufts nondiscrimination policy” in their leadership decisions for Chaplaincy-approved religious reasons.
The decision also allows TCF to remain “conditionally recognized” –without the rights to apply for TCU Senate funding or to Tufts’ name and resources– while they reapply for recognition under the new guidelines.
The CSL is a body of faculty members and students—chaired this year by Associate Professor of Biology Philip Starks and senior Rebecca Spiewak—whose responsibilities include hearing appeals of decisions handed down by the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Judiciary. The committee was asked at the beginning of last month to hear and make a ruling in the TCF appeal case after the Judiciary removed the evangelical Christian group’s TCU recognition status because clauses in its constitution violated the TCU Constitution’s non-discrimination clause.
Their ultimate decision, which the committee deliberated over the past month and released today in an email to the student body, has two major clauses.
“The [Judiciary] followed its policy correctly in de-recognizing the TCF.”
The decision first affirms the Judiciary’s vote in October to strip TCF of its status as a TCU-recognized group.
“Regarding the specific question of whether the [Judiciary] acted inappropriately, we find no significant fault with the [Judicary],” the decision reads. “No human process is perfect, and while variation across decision processes should be minimized, it is our finding that the [Judiciary] followed its policy correctly in de-recognizing the TCF.”
The Judiciary made the initial decision in September to put TCF’s recognition status on hold following the annual spring semester group recognition period. During the process, by which the Judiciary reviews the policies and governing documents of all TCU recognized groups on campus, it found that a clause in TCF’s constitution requiring students assuming leadership positions to affirm their belief in a series of series of tenets called a Basis of Faith, or eight “basic Biblical truths of Christianity,” was exclusionary to students who do not hold these beliefs and violated the TCU Constitution’ non-discrimination clause.
TCF made revisions to its constitution during the weeks that followed, but the revised version they sent to the Judiciary in October still contained the Basis of Faith requirement for leaders and was deemed to be in continued violation of the TCU Constitution.
In an interview with the Daily, Starks said the committee had not found any fault with the Judiciary’s processes or standards, and do not recommend any internal changes to the body.
While the CSL decision upholds the Judiciary’s decision to derecognize TCF and denies the group’s appeal, it simultaneously allows TCF to remain “conditionally recognized,” holding the same rights as TCU-recognized groups for 60 days under the provision that during this time it participates in a reapplication process outlined by the CSL.
The reapplication process, should TCF choose to participate, would allow it to work with the University Chaplain—a position currently held ad interim by Rev. Patricia Budd Kepler—and the other chaplains that make up Chaplaincy to develop a case for “justified departure” from the university’s nondiscrimination policy and bring that argument to the Judiciary as a part of their reapplication process.
“Any characteristic that deviates from Tufts’ nondiscrimination policies will need to be described very carefully. They’ll need to be described [and] justified to the Chaplain,” Starks said.
The University Chaplain, and the five chaplains that make up the Chaplaincy, would then evaluate the justification.
“If it is well supported by the doctrine of the faith, then the Chaplain may allow that to go forward,” Starks said.
In essence, the new policy would allow TCF or any other religious group to attempt to prove to the Chaplaincy—and then to the Judiciary—that adherence to a particular set of religious beliefs is necessary as a criterion for leadership within the group even if the criterion violates the university nondiscrimination policy.
The university nondiscrimination policy reads as follows:
“Tufts prohibits discrimination against and harassment of any [individual] because of race, color, national or ethnic origin, age, religion, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identityand expression, including a transgender identity, genetics, veteran status…and any other characteristic protected…under applicable federal or state law.”
As part of existing Judiciary, the Chaplaincy already reviews the constitutions of religious groups before they are allowed to apply for Judiciary recognition. The CSL decision also emphasizes that any groups applying for recognition from the Judiciary—a distinction that carries with it the right to request Senate funding drawn from the Student Activities Fee and to use the university’s name and resources—must continue to uphold and adhere to the University’s full nondiscrimination policy with respect to group membership.
A unanimous vote
According to Starks, the twelve voting faculty and student members of the CSL were unanimous in their support of the decision’s two major judgments—both that the Judiciary was correct in derecognizing TCF, and that this new exemption policy would adequately fill the void in policy regarding leaders of religious groups.
Although the Judiciary originally found TCF’s constitutional clauses for leadership in violation of the TCU Constitution—the governing document for the TCU government including the TCU Senate and the Judiciary—the CSL’s decision released today focuses only on religious groups’ relationship with the university-wide nondiscrimination policy.
The CSL combined the two documents in the interest of simplicity, according to Starks. While the TCU Constitution’s nondiscrimination clause is distinct from the university policy on discrimination, the Constitution derives its language from the Tufts policy, he explained.
“It all comes from the same tree,” Starks said. “The [Judiciary] policy cannot be in conflict with University policy.”
According to Starks, should TCF choose to apply for re-recognition by the Judiciary and go through the process of justifying their deviation from the university’s nondiscrimination policy, the Judiciary will be expected to place a heavy emphasis on clarity as it makes its decision.
“At that level the [Judiciary] will be looking mostly for transparency and for whether or not that information is presented in a way that will be easily digestible by our student body,” Starks said. “The policy that we’re creating here really asks for transparency in any of these deviation from the non discrimination policy at Tufts,” he added.
A reasonable expectation
The new process for establishing “justified departure” is meant to serve as a compromise between the “reasonable” expectation that religious groups should be allowed to hold their leaders to certain belief standards and the university’s commitment to upholding its own policy of nondiscrimination, Starks said.
“In leadership positions, individuals are often required to be exemplars of a particular approach, and I think it’s natural then for a group built around a philosophy to expect that its leadership reflect that,” he said.
The process applies to any Chaplaincy-affiliated religious group that seeks recognition or re-recognition from the Judciary from this point forward. If a religious group’s constitutional policy of selecting leaders based on religious doctrine is called into question by a member of the Tufts community or the Chaplaincy, however, it must receive approval from the Chaplaincy before it can apply or reapply for TCU recognition.
A chapter under fire
The Chaplaincy’s list of recognized religious organizations includes TCF as well as 16 others, such as the Muslim Students Association at Tufts, the Catholic Community at Tufts and the Latter Day Saints Student Association and the Tufts Freethought Society, which describes itself online as a “community of atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics, and friends at Tufts.”
TCF is unique among these groups in maintaining a clause in its constitution requiring that its leaders pledge to uphold a certain belief system.
Complicating matters is TCF’s dual role as a campus religious group but also as a chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA (IVCF), an evangelical Christian mission on college campuses across the U.S.
The Basis of Faith clause in TCF’s constitution—the same clause that led to TCF’s derecognition in October—is derived from a similar clause on IVCF’s website that the national organization requires of its chapters to retain in its constitution.
IVCF provides spiritual and indirect financial assistance to its chapters, although members of TCF’s leadership have said that that the InterVarsity’s influence over TCF is overemphasized and that TCF student leaders have the last word on all chapter policies.
Starks said the committee didn’t consider the relationship between TCF and IVCF in its handling of the case.
“The appeal that we received was very specific to our student body and our response is very specific to the student body,” Starks said. “I haven’t really taken into consideration the external organization. I’m very concerned about Tufts University.”
Read the op-ed by the chairs of the Committee on Student Life here