According to Matthew’s account of the transaction, Jesus gave Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven (see Chapter 16). That’s the good news. The bad news is that Bowdoin College has disabled the keys given to the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.
This way into the subject (see the New York Times account here) is just for fun, but you have to wonder if it is really a fair trade. If it means the Rev. Robert Ives, the director of religious and spiritual life at Bowdoin, gets to determine who has access to Bowdoin and St. Peter gets to determine who, at Bowdoin, gets into heaven, you really ought to think about it. Bowdoin: Heaven. Heaven: Bowdoin. Sometimes it’s hard to choose.
OK, that was recess; let’s get back to our studies.
For forty years, roughly the amount of time the Hebrew people spent wandering in the wilderness, evangelicals at Bowdoin College in Maine have been “part of the school community.” Presumably that means—it is what it meant at the University of Virginia when their case came up–that they receive the benefits of funding from the College and access to rooms where they can meet, just as all the other groups receive. Now, the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship has run afoul of the College’s anti-discrimination requirements.
In a collision between religious freedom and antidiscrimination policies, the student group, and its advisers, have refused to agree to the college’s demand that any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should be able to run for election as a leader of any group, including the Christian association.
I read this with a certain incredulity. Hello? You don’t have to be Christian to lead the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship? Why not? Do you have to be an evolutionist to chair the biology department?
But then I thought, “Well, that’s sensible after all. Why should the College have any views about who the evangelicals should choose as their leader? If they want to elect a Buddhist, why shouldn’t they be allowed to?”
That hard-won ease lasted me two paragraphs, when I learned that:
At Cal State, the nation’s largest university system with nearly 450,000 students on 23 campuses, the chancellor is preparing this summer to withdraw official recognition from evangelical groups that are refusing to pledge not to discriminate on the basis of religion in the selection of their leaders.
As I see it, this moves on beyond the question of whether they can elect a Buddhist if they want to and gets to the question of whether they can justify failing to choose a Buddhist. Note that “I want a leader who will help this group meet its avowed objectives” is not a valid objection because it “discriminates on the basis of religion.”
I see two questions here and, as is often the case in this blog, one points this way and one points that way.
The first question has to do with the school administration’s attitude toward special interest groups. I don’t think it would violate any important principle for the administration to say that “discrimination” is perfectly acceptable if it has to do with the fundamental reason a group exists.
Some institutions, including the University of Florida, the University of Houston, the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas, have opted to exempt religious groups from nondiscrimination policies.
Presumably, this refers to discrimination about religion. I am quite sure it does not empower the religious groups to discriminate on the base of race or gender, for instance. This seems like a common sense solution to me. It grants room for freedom of religious practice to the group and it doesn’t disadvantage anyone.
The second question comes at the problem from the other side. Are there really no catacombs under Bowdoin? Why not meet there, as the early Christians did at Rome?
The students are saying that Bowdoin should let them practice their religion in peace, but what they mean is that they want to be free to practice AND to violate the non-discrimination policy AND keep their college-granted key access. This is precisely like saying that a church should be able to campaign in any way it chooses AND to keep their 501(c) (3) status with the IRS.
I would like to ask the Reid Wilson and Zachary Stur, recent members of the Christian Fellowship what they are gaining by weaning themselves from official approval and what they are losing. Let’s leave aside the question of whether the College is being fair. They are not. You already know I’m on your side of that one. So let’s move to the question of your own goals. How can you not meet in Christian fellowship and apprentice yourselves to Jesus Christ and to study God’s Word without official approval? What would you be free to do if you didn’t have to have official approval? What have you been refusing to consider because it would have cost you official approval?
This could be the best thing that ever happened to you? Can you imagine, years down the road, the administration coming to you and pleading for you to accept the College’s blessing so that you would have to stop doing what you have been able to do by not caring whether you had the College’s blessing?
I think the College is wrong. I agree with you. But really, this may be one of the best things that ever happened to you and if Jesus had waited for official approval, he would still be waiting, and so would we.
 And, as you will see, that might not be the only similarity.
 See Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, 1994. Another of the 5-4 decisions for which recent courts have become famous. If you have been following this Court, you will not be surprised that Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion.