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February 12, 2010

Basketball sit-in highlights John Carroll U. bias debate

University Heights, Ohio--A basketball game between John Carroll University and Mount Union University became the focal point of a debate on LGBT inclusion at JCU after a sit-in was held at center court on February 3.

Around 20 students calmly walked to the center of the basketball court, casually shaking off attempts by university police to stop them, and sat down, bearing rainbow flags and signs calling for acceptance of LGBT people on campus.

In a moment of irony, the school band began playing �Hot Stuff� by Donna Summer, a song about looking for sex made popular in dance clubs in the gay-dominated disco era.

The protesters sang �Singing for Our Lives� by Holly Near and sat peacefully as players from the two teams began shooting practice shots at their respective baskets. Eventually, the students were escorted off the court.

While LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policies are now fairly standard at most universities, John Carroll is a Jesuit college, a Catholic institution. While the administration has not echoed the Vatican�s sentiment that homosexuality is �objectively disordered,� Father Robert L. Niehoff, the president of the university, put forward a draft of a new �Community Standards Statement� that calls for LGBT students and staff to be welcome. He has yet, however, to bring a nondiscrimination rule to the school�s board of trustees.

In October 2008, the faculty union voted in favor of adding sexual orientation to the school�s nondiscrimination policy. Niehoff took the recommendation to three committees of the board, but not to the board itself, and has recommended against the change.

The Community Standards Statement reads, �John Carroll desires an authentic commitment to inclusion and diversity as constitutive elements of our Jesuit Catholic identity. Consequently, discrimination against and harassment of one member of the University Community by any other member of the University Community, strikes at the very heart of this institution.�

It later quotes a Vatican catechism: �They [gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people and those questioning their sexual identity] must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.�

However, the statement then says that the university �also draws to the attention of all its members the traditional Catholic moral teaching that properly locates sexual activity within the relationship of a man and a woman united for life through marriage as husband and wife. Our religious identity therefore impels us to recognize the norm of chastity for everyone, whether homosexual or heterosexual, just as that same identity likewise impels us to recognize the norm of universal love and respect.�

�Given the imprecise legal definitions of the terms involved, and the ongoing attempts to codify shifting societal attitudes both through statutes and legal precedent, the University deems [changing official antidiscrimination policies] unwise and inappropriate,� the statement concludes. �The distinctions between sexual orientation and sexual conduct essential to Catholic teaching may not be the chief consideration of civil authorities and judicial bodies. As a Catholic, Jesuit University, John Carroll University must always and will always avoid any attempts by external civil judicial bodies to determine how it may or may not conduct itself according to its special religious identity.�

Niehoff was, according to JCU student Kevin Henderson, in Jamaica at the time of the protest, but cut short his trip to schedule an open forum on the subject slated for February 7.

�We�re waiting to see how the dialogue goes tomorrow before taking further action,� he said on February 6. �Students will not be silent on this issue until a formal nondiscrimination policy is passed.�

He pointed out that the lack of a formal policy gives license to students to harass and discriminate against LGBT students.

While Henderson has never been made to feel unwelcome on campus, he knows other students who have.

�At many times, students feel unsafe, and that�s something that has really come out in this dialogue,� he noted. �Many students experience harassment and many times it goes under the radar.�

Just over a year shy of graduation, he has started the process of picking a graduate school. As the discussion on JCU�s campus heats up, whether a school has an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policy is becoming an increasingly important criterion for him.

�It will be a huge consideration. These kinds of polices affect the level of openness and honest communication that students can have because of the level at which they can freely express themselves,� he said, noting that freedom from harassment allows �interaction with students and professors in a meaningful way.�

�I�m really hopeful that the policy will change and I do think that after seeing the student response, the administration and board will see the importance of this kind of policy,� Henderson noted.

While Niehoff believes that implementing an official policy goes against Catholic doctrine, at least two other major Jesuit educational institutions disagree: Boston College bars discrimination by sexual orientation, and Georgetown University protects both sexual orientation and gender identity.

A YouTube video of the John Carroll protest can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nc3ergeeZok.

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