Notes from the Underclass: CARE

Posted by thetuftsdaily on December 13, 2012 under Columns | Comments are off for this article

Continuing Walker Bristol’s column on social activism at Tufts, throughout Greater Boston, and beyond.

And a quick preface—although I’m indeed involved in CARE, I’m in no way whatsoever writing this on their behalf. Any opinionated slant here is, as always in this column, my own and mine alone.

A new policy has been brought forth to reform religious life on campus—paraded as upholding religious freedom, but rather disenfranchising those in the spiritual community already marginalized. It seeks to build a campus safer for diversity, yet inhibits that goal. And it is not without resistance.

The backstory: an immensely public (released via e-mail to the entire Tufts population) ruling by the Committee on Student Life (CSL) came Wednesday which in part, as outlined in the announcement, prescribed a new policy by which Chaplaincy-affiliated student organizations might enjoy a “religious exemption” from the Tufts Community Union (TCU) non-discrimination clause (emphasis mine):

From this point forward, all [Student Religious Groups (SRGs)] must justify on doctrinal grounds any departures from Tufts’ nondiscrimination policy in 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 TCU [Judiciary] for recognition.

On its face, and as its been largely reported by the media beyond Tufts’ campus: a victory for religious freedom, a reconciling of that freedom with (allegedly) different forms of freedom of expression. But is this not religious discrimination of another sort? Students whose personal spirituality dictates a departure from the common interpretation by whatever tradition they identify with will now, if that tradition’s on-campus community chooses to take advantage of this exemption, be restricted from leading that community. The existing leaders of the religious institutions on the Tufts campus, in conjunction with the University Chaplain, are now given the power to determine what exactly the proper interpretations of their related doctrine is. As for the future members of the communities those institutions claim to represent Hope you’re in line with the way they are now. Even if your organization’s leadership is chosen by ballot, it will continue to cycle through those who identify with a particular brand of their affiliated faith. To tell the student, “sorry, your spirituality is invalid” is oppressive. It is counter to religious freedom.

The opposition to this verdict was spearheaded by the Coalition Against Religious Exclusion (CARE), a network of student leaders and activists who, for months beforehand, had been drawing attention to the transgressions on the TCU non-discrimination policy by the on-campus InterVarsity Tufts Christian Fellowship. TCF had a longstanding requirement that leaders take a “Basis of Faith” prior to appointment (unlike most other SRGs, as well as a vast majority of TCU student groups, their leadership is not determined by free and open democratic elections). This noncompliance was addressed by the TCU Judiciary via derecognizing TCF, who eventually appealed their case to the CSL. The CSL upheld the derecognition in their most recent verdict, but instigated this new policy in an effort to resolve their process of selective appointment with TCU’s non-discrimination policy.

And yet, the notion that the two could ever or should ever be reconciled is suspect. Intolerance of difference is antithetical to diversity. Having elites, those already with power, dictate the viability of the underclass to come to power themselves is, it would seem blatantly, oppression. CARE has taken to promoting a petition to overturn the decision, to social media, and indeed to the streets, to illuminate this. There are members of CARE who would be the very SRG leaders that would allegedly find use of this policy, as there are members of CARE who are Evangelical Christians. In both of these on-campus demographics, there is active resistance.

As there is resistance in the TCU Senate. A group of senators drafted a resolution shortly after the CSL ruling that would at its core implore TCU to lobby the administration to overturn the policy—as would it, in protest, defund any TCU-affiliated organizations that sought to use it.

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Photo by Kumar Ramanathan

The Senate’s weekly public meeting on Sunday was intended as that resolution’s battleground. A mass demonstration by the Tufts community spilled out into Sophia-Gordon’s hallways from the Multipurpose Room where the hearing was held—CARE making a substantial presence. Prior to the meeting’s commencement, they held a rally outside the dorm, with signs advocating love, upholding diversity, decrying intolerance. Senators entering the meeting got the chance to be inspired by their support or swayed by their dedication. An invocation of compassion, and how it is threatened by the latest ruling.

Early in the hearing, the resolution, which directly and openly, opposes the verdict, was declared unconstitutional by the TCUJ on the grounds that the new CSL ruling is automatically a part of the TCU Constitution, and thereby the resolution would violate its spirit (I wonder if the pun was intended). To vote on the resolution, via anything but abstention, would threaten a senator’s seat. Some sympathetic senators sought to reconcile the Constitutional violation with the resolution’s intention, via proposing an amendment striking the its clause relating to funding. Thus began a debate for hours, between those willing to risk impeachment to force Senate to take a hard-line stance against this legislation and those seeking to take that stance within the bounds of the Constitution. The amendment was ultimately rejected.

Citing a notion that pushing an unconstitutional resolution would be counter to the Senate’s purpose, TCU President Wyatt Cadley chose to halt the Senate’s official discussion of the matter for the semester, with an unofficial promise to return to it in January. His decision was challenged, the discussion continued for some time, but ultimately it was upheld. The representation of the student body will not voice official opposition to the CSL policy until 2013. In the wake of silence, CARE has led a response for students to don purple, either armbands or clothes, in solidarity.

The community outside Tufts has a tainted view of what is happening on this campus. The “Tufts” voice that has been given the megaphone is one of a select part of the administration, whose decision in no way seems to be representative of the needs of the student body. With the Senate’s standstill, that body was not given the same courtesy. Prospective students applying as well as those already admitted now see a glimmer of religious life on campus as one that depends upon the institutionalization of discrimination in order to best function. Subverted are the many voices of those on-campus religious leaders who would shout, “No, we are welcoming, in our membership and in our leadership.” Subverted, for the month until the students are through with finals and back from the break, until the senate reconvenes, until administrative channels reopen, are the voices of dissent.

This conversation must continue. And the responsibility therein has fallen upon the individual activists, the personal voices, in the Tufts community. Five weeks: the seemingly voiceless must not go unheard.

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