Last spring, the administration announced that once again it would not add a “sexual orientation” clause to its university non-discrimination policy, despite increased pressure from Notre Dame students, faculty and staff to do so. As LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) issues continue to rise to the forefront of campus consciousness, two Notre Dame professors respond and defend their responses to the question: Should Notre Dame add “sexual orientation” to its non-discrimination policy?
The last few months have seen an unprecedented display of support for the rights and welfare of the members of the LGBTQ community at Notre Dame. More than 2,000 undergraduates signed an online letter offering “words of encouragement and solidarity” towards their LGBTQ classmates. They were joined by nearly 400 faculty and staff who declared that their “offices and classrooms will be safe and open spaces, where anti-LGBTQ discrimination, harassment, or violence will not be tolerated.”
Despite these cries, Notre Dame still does not include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination clause. By failing to do so, the university increasingly stands alone. The other U.S. News top 20 undergraduate schools, most Jesuit colleges (including Georgetown, Marquette, DePaul, Gonzaga and Creighton), other Holy Cross Colleges (including St. Edward’s and Stonehill), law schools at several conservative religious universities (including Brigham Young, Baylor, Pepperdine and Liberty), and our sister college, St. Mary’s, have all added sexual orientation to their non-discrimination clauses.
The time has come for Notre Dame to join their ranks. Counter to the beliefs of some, there is no need for a Catholic university to be unfriendly towards gays; indeed the Catholic faith teaches exactly the opposite. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states “[Homosexuals] must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” The U.S. Bishops have further added “[n]othing in the Bible or in Catholic teaching can be used to justify prejudicial or discriminatory attitudes and behaviors [toward homosexual persons].” Reflecting these teachings, in its own policies St. Mary’s states that “Based on Catholic values, the College commits to avoiding discrimination based on sexual or political orientation.”
Notre Dame has resisted change, in part, because it fears possible lawsuits that might force the university to go against its Catholic beliefs. These reservations persist despite the fact that dozens of Catholic colleges have included sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies with no ill-effects. Further, if this is truly a concern, the university can protect itself. For example, when Stonehill, after extensive consultation with its lawyers, recently expanded its non-discrimination policy, it added the phrase “Nothing in this statement shall require Stonehill College to act in a manner contrary to the beliefs and teachings of the Catholic Church.” Notre Dame could also look to other religious schools for guidance. The law schools at the conservative universities mentioned above (BYU, Baylor, Pepperdine and Liberty) include non-discrimination clauses in their policies but protect their religious identities via wording that explicitly distinguishes between sexual orientation and sexual conduct.
Perhaps most critically of all, the hypothetical and unlikely possibility of future litigation should not blind us to the very real damage that is being done to the university’s reputation and to its LGBTQ members today. The letter signed by 2,000 undergraduates was spurred by the transfer of a gay student who felt unwelcome here. Unfortunately, that student’s experience does not appear to be an anomaly. The Princeton Review’s Annual Survey has repeatedly ranked Notre Dame as one of the least LGBT-friendly colleges in the country. A 2008 report prepared for the Core Council for Gay and Lesbian Students stated that “many GLBTQ students on campus are confronted not just by an assumption of heterosexuality, but by an open hostility towards homosexuality. In the worst cases, this can be manifested as direct harassment. In other cases, the homophobia emerges as avoidance and shunning.”
Notre Dame must now take decisive action to reverse its reputation as a place that is unfriendly towards gays and lesbians. Just as Father Hesburgh fought against racial discrimination, the university must take a stand by declaring that discrimination based on sexual orientation violates Catholic moral principles and is not acceptable. Including sexual orientation in its non-discrimination clause is a moral imperative if Notre Dame is to remain a leader in defense of human rights.
Richard Williams is an Associate Professor and past chair of the Notre Dame Department of Sociology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resolved: Notre Dame should not add “sexual orientation” to its non-discrimination policy
Some people say that “discrimination is always wrong.” They mean that “discrimination” is inherently a bad thing, like being sick or flunking a course. If you asked them about adding to Notre Dame’s non-discrimination clause they might answer “yes,” without asking what it is you propose to add.
This way of speaking is mindless. It is indiscriminate about discrimination. We make sense of our world precisely by discriminating. Students discriminate when choosing classes, careers, and friends. Notre Dame discriminates in admissions and in giving scholarships. You have to nail the SAT to be admitted. Less affluent students and some athletes get scholarships. For the rest, it is family resources and student loans.
There is wrongful discrimination. The world suffers from plenty of it. The key is to be discriminate about discrimination, which means that we should make distinctions in our thinking, choosing, and acting only where there really is a relevant difference. This is especially important when our decisions affect other people. It is unjust – morally wrong – to treat people worse because of an irrelevant factor like skin color or the country in which their parents were born.
Notre Dame’s policy is not to discriminate on grounds of “race, color, national or ethnic origin, disability, veteran status, age, or sex.” The university thereby declares that none of these things will be considered in making decisions about how to treat people. At Notre Dame, every one of the named grounds is irrelevant, across the board.
Should Notre Dame declare that “sexual orientation,” too, makes no difference at all? Would it be right for the university to declare that “gay,” “questioning,” lesbian, “straight” (and, now or soon, other “sexual orientations” such as “S&M,” polygamous, or “swinging”) are all just the same?
A little thought about this proposal suggests that the answer is “no.” Race, ethnicity, age, et al can be subjectively very important to people, a valued part of someone’s identity. “Irish American,” for example, is often worn like a badge of honor around this campus, especially on game days. But none of the university’s present non-discrimination bases is a moral category. None take their meaning from a morally significant choice or act.
“Sexual orientation” is different. It is intelligible only in connection with how one seeks and obtains sexual satisfaction (with persons of the same or opposite sex, with both, or not quite sure which). So the question really is: should Notre Dame declare that it makes no difference – across the board – how one characteristically seeks and obtains sexual pleasure? Should the university say about “gay” and “straight” and points in between: it’s all just fine?
Of course not. A glance at any authoritative Church document (such as the Catechism) shows why: the faith holds that how one seeks and obtains sexual pleasure makes plenty of difference to human well-being. Any Catholic institution would thus contradict the faith if it said that the various “sexual orientations” are acceptable, all equally irrelevant to the university’s mission to teach and to form young people.
This answer is not just about being loyal to the home team or playing by the hierarchy’s rules. For the Church teaches here the moral truth about sex, namely, that it is for marriage between a man and woman. Adding “sexual orientation” would therefore not only undermine Notre Dame’s witness to the faith. It would be tantamount to lying about a matter crucial to everyone’s moral flourishing.
Someone might object at this point, saying that “sexual orientation” is not about how one would obtain sexual pleasure. Adding it to Notre Dame’s policy is about combating discrimination based upon someone’s inward feelings of same-sex attraction, which may scarcely have been chosen and which might not be acted upon. This objector might conclude by asking: doesn’t the Church itself distinguish between feelings of same-sex attraction, and acting upon them?
In reply: the Church does indeed discriminate when it comes to moral evaluation between feelings (of all kinds) and acts (of every sort). But that does not imply that all feelings are fine. Many, including many sorts of sexual feelings (towards children or one’s relatives or to persons of the same sex) are not, because the sexual acts to which they tend and tempt are always immoral. Discriminating against people due to their inward feelings (alone) is usually wrong. But none of the grounds in the present non-discrimination policy is a feeling, and there is no reason to start a trend with this one.
Even so: let’s say that we drafted an amendment to the non-discrimination clause which extended it exactly, and only, to inward feelings and which explicitly rejected seeking and obtaining sexual satisfaction with anyone of the same sex as always seriously immoral. Would those on campus arguing for change accept this amendment as a final settlement of the controversy? I doubt it very much.
The reason is that “sexual orientation” means in this campus contest what it means elsewhere in American culture and law. Its operative meaning goes well beyond feelings of sexual attraction. “Sexual orientation” refers mainly to adopting an identity – as “gay” or “trans” or whatever – and to affirming the moral licitness of obtaining sexual satisfaction accordingly. “Sexual orientation” denotes, in other words, a sexual lifestyle which the university rightly refuses to say is irrelevant, tout court.
Refusing to add “sexual orientation” is not an invitation to treat any “gay” student (for example) unjustly. In fact, countless things which are irrelevant to almost all that the university does are not on the non-discrimination list. Hair and eye color have no more to do with fair treatment than does skin color. Or, what if students and some professors urged the university to pledge not to discriminate against those who watch pornography and masturbate to it? This behavior would be an unjust basis upon which to evaluate students’ academic accomplishments. If it were done without bothering other people and without violating other university policies, masturbating to pornography would not be grounds for expelling anyone. But it would still be unreasonable for these porn users and their sympathizers to ask the university to treat conduct which violates Catholic moral teaching, and which typically depicts women as men’s sex slaves, as if it were morally neutral. In this case as in the case with “sexual orientation,” those who would add to the non-discrimination clause really want the university community to endorse a false sexual ideology.
Gerard V. Bradley is a professor of law and a member of The Rover’s council of advisors.