Bowdoin: Is Religious Freedom Discriminatory?

Last Monday, Bowdoin College made page one of the New York Times with its decision to de-recognize an evangelical student group for refusing to sign an anti-discrimination pledge. This meant the group could not use the chapel, the multicultural center, any room at Bowdoin, or even campus bulletin boards. The pledge said all campus groups and their leadership positions must be open to all students. The group said it would accept non-believers as members, but not as leaders, because leaders are the custodians of doctrine, so religious freedom is at stake.

Bowdoin managed to change its mind twice during the week, rebutting the Times story on Tuesday,  (“Religious freedom and spirituality are alive and thriving at Bowdoin. Contrary to the Times article, the College continues to recognize the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship (BCF) and has no plans to drop that recognition after this summer. ”) then switching again on Friday to acknowledge that the Times had been right, saying that the BCF is “discriminating and that is a violation of our policy, …so they would lose their recognition.”

Bowdoin in effect fired the longtime unpaid advisers to the student group, Robert Gregory and his wife Sim, disabling their keycards. Bowdoin added a nasty slur to Gregory as a departing gift. According to the Bowdoin Orient, Tim Foster, dean of student affairs, said the initiative for the pledges  grew partially as a reaction to the Penn State scandal in 2011 in which assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of child molestation. “One of the things we realized,” Foster told the Orient, “is that we have people on our campus working with students, spending a significant amount of time with students, and we don’t know a lot about a lot of these people.” But the Gregorys have worked with the group for almost a decade, and their dedication and helpfulness is not in dispute.

Gregory, a lawyer and also a minister, said signing the agreement would constitute a violation of his Christian faith. So he offered a revision, saying that “The signature on this agreement shall not be construed to limit in any way the right of the undersigned Volunteer to hold, teach and practice his/her sincerely held Christian religious beliefs and to follow, hold, and teach the religious beliefs and practices of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship….” Bowdoin rejected this version.

The hardnosed response from the administration surprised many students, The religious group has been on campus 40 years with no accusation of bias or compromising pledges to sign. “This is new, adminstrators acting forcefully against their own students,” said Owen Strachan, a Bowdoin grad and Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky. “A new narrative is being born, that all sexualities and sexual identities are equally valid, and Bowdoin has forced the hand of its religious groups.

The specific issue is that activist gays and their allies have been pushing colleges around the country to view the traditional Christian view of sex–all sex outside of male-female marriage is sinful—as discriminatory, and using anti-discrimination measures to bring them to heel.

We look at it a different way—that religious groups should have absolute freedom in the process of picking their leaders and for college administrators to begin intruding on that process under cover of anti-bias rules is true discrimination and a very obvious violation of religious freedom.

John Leo

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

2 thoughts on “Bowdoin: Is Religious Freedom Discriminatory?

  1. I just read about Tim Fowler, Dean at Bowdoin, busting kids for partying with tequila and mini sombreros. Then I read about him monitoring and censoring halloween costumes. And then I read about him trying to control musical tastes of students.

    This man is insane. No grown man of any level of professional success and repute would concern himself with these matters…. 19 year old children partying.

    The world around him swirls and churns with real man-sized problems like civil wars and famine and poverty.

    This coward hides behind his little crummy textbook on communist/fascist control of what our children do.

    I would never give ANY univeristy a DIME with a joke of a human being like the venerated Bowdoin Dean in charge.

    These people have become a plague on American society. Their ideologies run contrary to democratic ideals and principles. They do not want to defend minorities from guys like me (i.e. “the evil white man”). They want control.

    Their souls are so empty, black, twisted and distorted that their passionless, sexless, joyless existence stands in stark contrast to anyone who is full of life and having fun and being free.

    It’s time, as a society, to turn our collective backs to people like Dean Fowler. Paying attention to men like him gives him power.

    Ignoring his petty, inane witch hunts and cutting up his absurd PC mantras with irreverent jokes, gross commentary, and overall rejection of the warped values men like him stand for.

    FOWLER is a bully. A coward. A man who produces nothing, adds nothing, and is nothing. His academic career will be nothing more than an obscure footnote in history because millions upon millions of people on this planet have had it with people like him, his lies, his attempts to control people’s actions and thoughts, and his completely pompous and overblown assertion that he has it right and those of us who disagree with him are somehow inferior and in need of his “re-education”.

    Dean Fowler, if you are reading this, sir: F–K YOU! I left out the U and the C so you feel you have a “safe space” in which to draft a reply.

  2. As I note at AcademeBlog, the key problem with discriminatory rules for student groups is that someone must be trusted to interpret and enforce them. My question is, do you trust administrators to decide which students have the proper religious faith to qualify for these positions? I certainly don’t, and that’s why students are the best ones to pick their leaders, without restrictive rules.

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