A Marquette student was dismissed from his leadership roles with a campus student group after informing its staff advisor that he’s gay, despite a university policy that bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Campus officials investigated the incident and initially suspended the group for anti-gay discrimination. But the group appealed, and after an outcry from influential right-wing members of the university community, it was found guilty of a technical infraction of policy rather than discrimination. The suspension was lifted and the sentence was reduced to probation.
The student, who asked to be identified only as “George” because he fears reprisal, said the events were reminiscent of last year’s reversal of a job offer to out lesbian Jodi O’Brien to serve as dean of the university’s college of arts and sciences.
Gay and Christian
George said he was a devout Christian who chose to attend Marquette specifically because it’s a Jesuit institution, which has a tradition of both faith and social justice.
“I grew up very Christian and struggled with that because I knew I was gay since I was a kid, and I came to Marquette hoping I would finally be able to reconcile these two identities in myself,” he said. “I was hoping I could be openly gay and still be Christian.”
George joined the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in January 2010 and was elected to two leadership positions with the group in May 2010. Although Marquette’s IVCF is a conservative Christian chapter that’s part of an international organization, as a registered student group, it’s still subject to university policy.
George said he felt compelled to come out to the group as gay before taking the leadership roles. “What if you want to have a relationship and you didn’t tell them and then they find out?” he said.
George said he disclosed his sexual orientation in June 2010 to Jen Wojtysiak, one of the group’s staff advisors, because he trusted her. “I came out to her – I’m gay. What do I do about this?” he said.
A few weeks later, George was interrogated by Wojtysiak and the group’s other staff advisor Ryan Lospaluto about his religious beliefs.
“They asked me questions about celibacy,” George said. “I said, ‘I don’t think celibacy applies to me, because the Bible does not have a place that discusses gay identity. Also, what’s the point of being celibate if you can’t get married in the future? Do I have to stay celibate and single forever unless I pretend to be straight?’”
After George said he disagreed with Biblical teachings on celibacy and homosexuality, he was asked to step down voluntarily from his official positions. He refused and was told that he would be able to address the Student Executive Board to give his side of the story.
But the opportunity to have his say was never granted, he said. Instead, he received correspondence from group leaders letting him know that he’d been summarily dismissed from his leadership positions.
An e-mail that George shared with WiG informed him that he was “removed from the Night of Worship team” because he had “decided to make a lifestyle choice which (sic) contradicts the Christian lifestyle we are called to live as presented in the Word of God.”
The e-mail goes on to list a number of biblical injunctions against same-sex relations, including a verse that compares gays with murderers and says they “deserve death.”
George filed a discrimination complaint with Marquette’s Office of Student Affairs, alleging that he was he was dismissed for his sexual orientation and was singled out for questioning about his faith as a direct consequence of coming out.
In a July 14 hearing, George’s complaint was reviewed by conduct administrators Erin Lazzar and Ian Jamieson, who found the group responsible for discrimination based on sexual orientation. They suspended the group for one year, ordered a period of probation and issued guidelines for the group to attain re-recognition.
George said Jamieson notified him of the finding by phone on July 21.
At that point, Marquette’s Christian-right constituency stepped into the fray. Right-wing radio host Mark Belling reported on the group’s suspension, stirring outrage from the campus’ influential conservative constituents. John McAdams, a political science professor at Marquette and a right-wing blogger, posted an attention-grabbing item online on Aug. 4 titled “Marquette InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Threatened With Suspension for Failure to Accept Sexually Active Homosexual Officer.”
The publicity unleashed a letter-writing campaign from anti-gay conservatives just as Dean of Students Stephanie Quade was reviewing the case on appeal. She ultimately overturned the original decision, finding that IVCF had not broken the university’s anti-discrimination policy. Instead, she ruled the group had violated the organization’s constitution and a university policy requiring every student officer to be given a fair trial before dismissal.
She reduced the penalty for the group to probation.
“Any student organization has the right to place restrictions on it membership (for example, honors groups or academic groups have GPA or major requirements, fraternities and sororities can only have students of particular gender, etc),” Quade wrote to WiG in an e-mail. “Based on the principle of free association (you do not have to join a particular group, nor do you have to be an officer in a group), groups have the rights to establish reasonable parameters.”
But, Quade added, “Marquette expects all student organizations to adhere to the university’s Statement on Human Dignity which ‘recognizes and cherishes the dignity of each individual regardless of age, culture, faith, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, language, disability or social class.’”
Quade contended there was no reversal of decision in the case, because “no student conduct decision is final until the time in which to file an appeal has passed or an appeal is filed and decided.”
She also stated that “communication from alumni or other constituents from the university and outside community are not considered in a response to an appeal, as the Code of Conduct specifies that the parameters of an appeal are limited to a review of the materials related to the hearing.”
George said that what troubled him the most was that Jamieson later denied ever saying the group was guilty of discrimination. George provided WiG with documentation of that finding.
Reached by phone, Jamieson, whose title is coordinator for student organizations, declined to comment on the case.
George said he felt betrayed by his fellow Christians as well as Marquette’s administration.
“I initially believed that Marquette would make the right judgment and would address this issue fairly,” he said. “And I also thought Marquette was an advocate for LGBT issues, because the university has a strong component of social justice and service. I don’t trust the university any more. When I received the final decision, I was considering transferring. But I had one year left.”
As a result of his experience at Marquette, George said he no longer identifies as a Christian and “the Bible is no longer a voice of authority for me.”
“I no longer hold the belief that this is the only religion,” George said. “People who profess to be Christian leaders only accept you if you are exactly as they are and abandon you in your greatest need.”
George said the university once again demonstrated, as it did in the Jodi O’Brien case, that it is wrestling with its dual identities as a Catholic and an academic-driven institution.
“They’re torn between the right and the academic left,” he said. “So at this point you could say they’re afraid of making any statement in any direction, because it would drive one part of their population nuts. So they try to play the middle ground. They’re trying to be inclusive of LGBT students but at the same time they do not want to make a strong stand about that. They’ll find that their strategy will continue to backfire and jeopardize their reputation in the long run.”