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John Carroll board asks Niehoff to put gays in bias rules
University Heights--The board of John Carroll University has asked the school’s president to develop a non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation, following a month of protests over the lack of such a rule.
Tensions between LGBT advocates and the Jesuit college’s administration became visible with a sit-in at a February 3 basketball game. Just over a month later, a second non-violent protest prompted the board’s move.
Over 300 people went to the Lombardo Student Center for a rally coinciding with the board’s March 9 meeting. They were supported by the Cleveland LGBT Center, Equality Ohio, the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland, the Cleveland Stonewall Democrats, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, the Human Rights Campaign and gay-straight alliances from Cleveland State University and Case Western Reserve University.
The rally began at 7:30 pm and went until 11 pm. Bands played, people were photographed with tape over their mouths to symbolize the silencing of LGBT and allied voices, petitions were signed and people wrote their personal stories, which were given to the board the next morning.
Attending the rally were students from John Carroll, CSU and CWRU, along with JCU faculty members and alumni dating back to the class of 1969.
In the month before the March 9 meeting and the rally, 65 people signed up for a rolling fast to keep a visible presence in the student center, and 30 people held a silent fast on the day of the rally.
Within days, the board met with students who had spoken before the Academic and Student Affairs subcommittees, and asked university president Fr. Robert Niehoff to develop a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation.
Niehoff then sent a letter to the Cleveland suburban school’s students, telling them, “The board wholeheartedly supports our continued efforts to create a safe environment for all which includes members of the LGBT community. Remaining faithful to our Jesuit Catholic character, we seek a more diverse and inclusive campus community.”
The phrasing was similar to that Niehoff used in rebuffing requests to add sexual orientation a month earlier, when he said that it would be against Catholic teachings.
The school’s new Community Standards Statement quotes from a Vatican order that requires LGBT people to be “accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”
The statement, however, goes on to say that Catholic doctrine “locates sexual activity within the relationship of a man and a woman united for life through marriage as husband and wife.”
The faculty union voted in favor of adding sexual orientation to the school’s non-discrimination rules in October 2008, and Niehoff brought the matter to board committees, but never brought it before the board as a whole.
Niehoff’s later letter states, “The board has requested that I act expeditiously to develop a revised non-discrimination policy and report to them on three essential actions at our May meeting.”
Those three issues are:
• To strengthen the reporting and investigation of alleged “bias, harassment, intimidation and threats on campus,”
• “Work with faculty to address issues of fairness and equity for all faculty concerning hiring, tenure and promotion,” and,
• Doing a legal review to examine how changing the rules can be done within the law.
While Ohio non-discrimination laws do not protect from discrimination by sexual orientation, there is nothing in them to prevent universities or corporations from granting protections to their employees, and many already have.
“This process will include a review of the practices at 27 other Jesuit colleges and universities,” the email notes.
Among those universities are Boston College and Georgetown University, two of the largest Jesuit institutions of higher learning in the nation. Boston College protects on the basis of sexual orientation, and Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., has policies covering both sexual orientation and gender identity.
“I knew so many great friends throughout my years at JCU who couldn’t dare let others know their identity--their real selves,” one alumnus from the class of 1985 wrote at the rally. “Change comes slowly, but it’s good to see it finally come and bring acceptance for this next generation.”
Katie Farrell Norris and her husband Jeff, from the class of 2000, were hopeful that the lessons they were taught at the school would be taken to heart by the administration.
“At JCU we learned to treat everyone with dignity and respect. That has enabled us to go out into the world after graduation and work to make the world a more just place. We hope that you will make your policies reflect your values and the values you taught us,” they wrote.
Those sentiments, and many others like them, were brought to the board the following day.
In the week after the board’s decision, there is a sense of relief and elation where once was anger and frustration.
“Now that students, faculty, and the university’s board of directors are all in agreement, we are ecstatic for the movement toward change,” said Paul Purdy, a 2007 graduate. “The conversations on this topic have been occurring for over five years and I am amazed at the amount of support that has recently come in for this issue from the JCU community and well beyond.”
“However, the community of John Carroll is still waiting for ‘sexual orientation’ to actually be written in to the equal employment opportunity clause for the university,” he continued. “While we are all enthusiastic about the outcome of the board of directors meeting, we will not be satisfied until it is set in print.”
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