David French knew what he was getting into when he signed up to study on a Churches of Christ campus in Nashville.
“When I went to David Lipscomb College, we all knew there was no drinking and there was no sex until you were married. We knew about the daily Bible studies and the required chapel services,” said French, a Harvard Law School graduate who leads the Alliance Defense Fund’s Center for Academic Freedom.
“There’s nothing wrong with a private college trying to maintain a distinctive religious tradition, whether Jewish or Catholic or evangelical or whatever. The U.S. Constitution says that’s fine. But you’re supposed to tell students the rules up front.”
Twenty years later, things haven’t changed much at Lipscomb University and at many other religious schools — yet students choose to enroll anyway. Meanwhile, other private colleges and universities have made headlines and inspired a few lawsuits by tweaking or overhauling their rules that affect faith and morality on campus.
That’s why French wasn’t surprised that Georgetown University administrators have decided to ban outside Protestant ministries from holding on-campus worship services, Bible studies, prayer groups or fellowship meetings. More than 50 schools — including Princeton and Harvard — have tried to do the same thing in recent years.
Georgetown leaders said the goal is a more unified Protestant voice on campus. Groups rocked by the decision say it’s an attack on diversity.
“While we realize that this comes as a great disappointment, please know we are moving forward with this decision after much dialogue with the Lord,” said the Rev. Constance Wheeler of the campus Protestant ministry office, writing to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Chi Alpha and other evangelical groups affected by the ban.
The banned groups may be able to maintain some presence on the world-famous Jesuit campus if they can find evangelical or conservative Protestant professors to serve as official sponsors, said Kevin Offner of the InterVarsity staff. The problem is that they are having trouble finding faculty members who will stand with them.
“What we want to know is if different religious groups are going to be treated alike,” said Offner. “To what degree do Catholic, Jewish and Muslim students on campus have access to national organizations that support them in their faith, while there’s this funny stuff going on with the Protestants?”
Ministry leaders from off-campus have, in recent years, been required to sign a covenant written by mainline Protestants in the official Georgetown campus-ministry office. In one clause, they pledged to “maintain respect for the various religious traditions” on campus, while avoiding actions that could be interpreted as “denigrating or ridiculing” others. Ministers were asked to help students of all faith traditions, yet the covenant specifically prohibited evangelism or “proselytizing” among those who might be “vulnerable in their faith or personal lives.” Another clause stressed: “I affirm the legitimacy of Roman Catholicism as a path to salvation.”
There are some tensions between religious groups at Georgetown, especially in an era in which Muslim students and donors have played a big role in the growth of new programs and facilities. However, the strongest tensions on campus are caused by moral and cultural issues, not over-zealous Protestant evangelists, said Manuel Miranda, a conservative Catholic activist and Georgetown alum.
“There are far more Protestants who convert to Catholicism while at Georgetown than the other way around,” he stressed. In his opinion, the key to the ban on independent Protestant ministries is “the fact that all of these groups take very orthodox positions on the crucial social issues, like gay rights and abortion. If anything, they’re more Catholic on these issues than lots of Catholics there.”
The bottom line, said French, is that a private school can do what it wants to do, as long as it keeps any written promises it has made to students. The Georgetown campus-ministry website says, “Welcome,” “Shalom” and “Assalamu-Alaikum (Peace be upon you).” The university claims to welcome students of “every religious profession.”
“The issue is whether Georgetown is doing a bait-and-switch routine,” he said. “The school says it has a come one, come all approach to religion. But when evangelical students get there, they may discover that they don’t have the same rights when it comes to free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion. … The university has to state its rules clearly and then live by them.”