Notre Dame To Student Group: Who Needs You?

Robert Shibley Senior Vice President, FIRE
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In January, students at the University of Notre Dame formed a new organization called Students for Child-Oriented Policy (SCOP). On its Facebook page, SCOP identifies itself as “a group of undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Notre Dame who are focused on the debate about marriage taking place in Indiana.” On April 30, Notre Dame officially denied SCOP recognition as a campus club. Why?

If you believe Notre Dame, it’s because the college felt the club was unnecessary. Notre Dame told SCOP that the group’s mission was too similar to those of two existing clubs, the Orestes Brownson Council and the Children’s Defense Fund.

Notre Dame’s argument does not stand up to even a few minutes’ inquiry. The Orestes Brownson Council’s website states that the group “was founded so that Notre Dame students may better understand the teachings of the Catholic Church” because “many Catholics are ignorant of Church history and of the intellectual origins of Her doctrines and traditions.” While SCOP’s goals might overlap with this very broad mission, it’s really stretching it to label the Orestes Brownson Council as “focused on the debate about marriage taking place in Indiana,” as SCOP intends to be.

Meanwhile, the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) student group calls itself “a campus branch of the National Children’s Defense Fund.” The national organization is generally regarded as left-leaning; its “best-known alum” is Hillary Clinton, and its founder and president, Marian Wright Edelman, is a social activist who credits Howard Zinn (her former professor) for expanding her horizons. It is highly unlikely that the group would actively promote SCOP’s socially conservative views on marriage. What’s more, the Notre Dame branch of the CDF may not even be currently active; its website states that it has not been updated since 2007.

So what gives? A little back story may provide a clue. One of SCOP’s first actions was to pressure Notre Dame’s president, Father John Jenkins, “to make a clear stand in support of the true definition of marriage.” (Father Jenkins does not appear to have responded.) In its petition, SCOP defined marriage as a “natural institution that unites one man and one woman” and pointed out that “[t]he University holds itself in harmony with the Catholic teaching that ‘[s]exuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman,’” as Notre Dame itself says.

But even at a place as quintessentially Catholic as Notre Dame, controversy ensued. Hundreds of students signed a petition asking the University to deny SCOP recognition as an official student organization due to its views, and the case for and against the group’s existence was debated in the pages of The Observer, a Notre Dame student newspaper.

What’s the more likely reason for denying SCOP’s official recognition? Do Notre Dame officials really believe that a history group and a possibly defunct liberal group are providing Notre Dame students everything SCOP would when it comes to the Indiana marriage debate, or is it more likely that Notre Dame just preferred to tamp down any inconvenient pressure on its president or controversy on its campus?

Unfortunately, colleges looking for a way to keep unwanted groups off-campus routinely trot out the excuse about overlapping missions. For instance, at the University of South Florida in 2010, administrators denied recognition to a chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative group, for allegedly being too similar to Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian group. This, on a campus with more than 60 multicultural organizations and 20 engineering clubs. And in 2003, the University of Miami refused to recognize a conservative club because there was already a Republican group on campus. Restrictions on “similar” campus groups made no sense then, and Notre Dame’s restrictions make no sense now.

Besides, plenty of Notre Dame student groups overlap at least as much as the university claims SCOP would. Notre Dame has two environmental groups (GreeND and Students for Environmental Action), two Latino groups (La Alianza and MEChA), and a number of different Catholic groups.

Why is an allegedly similar group impermissible in SCOP’s case but fine in others? Notre Dame hasn’t said — but maybe that’s because not enough people are asking.