Sandra Fluke, religious colleges and unexpected rules


Georgetown is a Catholic institution that has Jesuit priests living on campus, requires undergraduates to take theology classes and upholds a church teaching that forbids contraception. Such rules can surprise, especially as less than half of Georgetown students identify as being Catholic.


Sandra Fluke, sown Feb. 23. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

So in addition to igniting a highly personal national debate about mandated coverage of contraceptives, Fluke’s testimony has also prompted discussions about the range of rules governing students at religious colleges.

“We did not expect that women would be told in the national media that we should have gone to school elsewhere” to receive contraception coverage, said Fluke, 30, at a forum held on the Hill on Feb. 23. Fluke has said she is Protestant. “We refuse to pick between a quality education and our health.”

It’s a discussion that has played out time and time again, as college students who are exploring their beliefs clash with historic church teachings that dictate campus rules. Those rules can lead to difficult decisions for administrators: Can religious schools emotionally support and recognize LGBT students without taking a stance on gay rights? Curb an STD outbreak in the dorms without promoting condom use? Crackdown on sexual assaults — often a case of he-said-she-said — while forbidding premarital sex? Foster intellectual curiosity and discussion without featuring controversial speakers or hiring edgy faculty members?

During last year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament, a star player from Brigham Young University was dismissed from the team after school officials learned that he had broken the private university’s strict honor code, which forbids premarital sex. BYU is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and nearly all students are Mormon. The code also requires students to be honest, attend church regularly, dress modestly and abstain from alcoholic beverages, tobacco, tea, coffee and other substances.

At the time, BYU basketball coach Dave Rose said: “Everybody who comes to BYU, every student if they’re an athlete or not an athlete, they make a commitment when they come. A lot of people try to judge if this is right or wrong, but it’s a commitment they make. It’s not about right or wrong. It’s about commitment.”

While that’s an extreme case of rule enforcement, many religious schools have codes of conduct that forbid hooking up — or late-night opposite-sex visitations of any sort. Catholic University in the District is in the process of converting all of its dorms into single-sex halls. Liberty University in Virginia, founded by evangelical pastor Jerry Farwell, forbids any display of affection beyond hand-holding, including “giving backrubs or massages, kissing, reclining or lying together in an intimate fashion, sitting on each other’s laps.”

These rules are nearly always written in reference to relationships between men and women, as religious schools vary widely in their policies regarding LGBT students and issues. In 2009, I wrote about LGBT student groups at Georgetown and Catholic universities.

Georgetown has a LGBTQ Resource Center that’s staffed by two full-time employees. Although the Catholic Church defines marriage as being between a man and woman, Georgetown officials have said it is within their mission to advocate for LGBT students to be respected, included and protected.

“We don’t have a political agenda. We don’t have a lifestyle agenda. We’re concerned about helping our young people,” the Rev. Kevin O’Brien, executive director of campus ministry, told me at the time. “It’s something that we’re really proud of.”

Across town at Catholic, a group of LGBT students and their supporters fought to have official recognition of a student club called CUAllies. The students said the group would advocate for the safety and inclusion of LGBT students and work to make the campus more gay-friendly. Administrators said at the time that they could not support a group that would most likely advocate for positions contrary to church teachings.

For more higher education news, you can follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Here are some recent headlines from Campus Overload:

Sandra Fluke says she expected criticism, not personal attacks, over contraception issue

Rankings of gay-friendly colleges are all the rage — but are these lists accurate?

Campus Overload Live Chat: Religion and God on campus

Jenna Johnson is a political reporter who is covering the 2016 presidential campaign.

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