Religious Liberty at George Washington University?

It was bound to happen eventually, and now — for the first time ever, as far as I know — this predictable little drama is unfolding, and it is doing so in our nation’s capital. According to the GW Hatchet, two homoerotically-inclined seniors at George Washington University have launched a campaign to drive the university’s Catholic chaplain from the hallowed halls of GW.

The priest in question, who has served as the GW Catholic chaplain for the last five years, is purportedly guilty of the unforgivable crime of upholding the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. That, at least, is the charge being lodged by Damian Legacy and Blake Bergen. They “say they have left the Newman Center in the last several years because Father Greg Shaffer’s strong anti-gay and anti-abortion views are too polarizing,” and they “plan to file a formal complaint with the University and hold prayer vigils outside the Newman Center until Shaffer is removed.”

Legacy and Bergen will deliver a letter this week to top administrators including University President Steven Knapp, citing academic studies that link harmful psychological effects, like the inability to sleep and loss of appetite, with being around homophobic behavior.

GW’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion is already reviewing the case, after Legacy submitted a report last semester that outlined how other schools vet religious leaders before bringing them to campus.

New York University approves all religious affiliates by reviewing backgrounds, credentials and letters of recommendation from the faith community, as well as qualifications that indicate they can work with college-aged students. Legacy said GW would benefit from a similar system.

Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Harris Reed declined to comment on specifics about the report, saying that her office is in the “early stages of a review” of the Multicultural Student Services Center, which oversees religious life, “so it is premature to speak about the possibility or feasibility of any changes.”

Aside from the appeal to GW, Legacy and Bergen will also send letters to D.C.’s Roman Catholic archdiocese, who heads the Church for the entire District and is responsible for choosing priests’ assignments.

Legacy will also ask the Student Association to defund the Newman Center as part of the SA’s annual allocations process to organizations April 15. This year, the Newman Center received $10,000 from the SA, which divvies up funds from a budget accumulated through student fees.

Earlier this semester, the SA Senate passed a bill that allows the finance committee to dock a third of a group’s budget if the University finds a group is discriminatory or harasses individuals. The GW Catholics – based out of the Newman Center – have not been found to be either, but Legacy and Bergen said the bill could bolster their argument.

According to Legacy, who was apparently at one time a regular mass-goer at the chaplaincy, what Father Shaffer does, in fact, is to advise “students who are attracted to members of the same sex to remain celibate for the rest of their lives.” Shaffer also reportedly counsels students against abortion, and I would be willing to bet that he advises those who are heterosexually inclined to refrain from sex until they are married.

It will be exceedingly interesting to see what happens at GW. At least among liberals, it is now an accepted doctrine that all human beings have a right “to express their sexuality.” If the outlook alluded to by this euphemism becomes normative, as is likely to happen, will those in authority be willing to tolerate those who dissent from these new norms and deny that any such right exists? I think not. I would like to believe that Steven Knapp would seize upon these developments as an occasion for reasserting the principles of academic and religious liberty. I would like to think that he would summarily and contemptuously dismiss the complaint that Legacy and Bergen intend to lodge. I would like to think that he would set a precedent for other university presidents to follow. But I have trouble imagining the President of George Washington University or of any similar institution (especially one with “a Provost for Diversity and Inclusion”) doing anything of the sort. Backbone and moral leadership are not qualities for which today’s university presidents are famous.

If things keep drifting in the direction in which they are rapidly drifting now, Catholics and other Christians and Jews who adhere to the traditional Judeo-Christian moral teaching are going to be marginalized, then persecuted. I foresee a day when the tax-exempt status of the Roman Catholic Church will be yanked because it resolutely refuses to ordain women, because it condemns abortion as murder, and because it refuses to condone sex outside a marriage open to procreation. I foresee a day when priests will be fined or imprisoned for articulating in sermons and counseling sessions the teaching of the Church. I foresee a day when similar punishment will be visited on Protestants and Jews who assert the traditional teaching of their faiths. This is, after all, the sort of thing that happens in Canada now. How can one tolerate those who deny others’ rights?

As those of you who have read what I have had to say on related subjects in the past already know, I believe that, by soft-pedaling its opposition to abortion and by enthusiastically embracing the administrative entitlements state, the American Catholic Church has asked for the treatment now in store for it. But the folly of the Catholic hierarchy in this country and the corruption that beset it in the all too recent past does nothing to obviate the horror of what is to come. What is happening at GW is a straw in the wind.