Catholic University said yesterday that it will allow students to start an NAACP chapter on campus as long as the group does not advocate abortion rights or take other positions contrary to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
The decision came six months after the university blocked a student NAACP chapter from forming, citing the civil rights organization's support for abortion rights and the belief that such a chapter would "cause redundancy" with existing campus groups. That created controversy on and off the campus, with the national president of the NAACP saying he would go to court, if necessary, to get school officials to reverse their stance.
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The university's president, the Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, said in June that he would meet with students this fall and reevaluate the decision. He met last week with about 20 student proponents of an NAACP chapter. He then turned the matter over to the school's Office of University Center, Student Programs and Events, asking it to reconsider its earlier decision.
"The students I met with made a convincing case demonstrating how and why a student chapter of the NAACP would be an important addition to our roster of student organizations, particularly in advancing the cause of civil rights," O'Connell said in a statement yesterday.
In addition, he said, students at the meeting "pledged unequivocally" to abide by all university policies and procedures, including prohibitions on presenting speakers whose views run counter to those of the church.
"This assurance was key to the decision, as was the determination that a significant number of students genuinely wished to create an NAACP chapter," O'Connell said.
William Jawando, a law student who spent months trying to get the NAACP chapter approved, called the decision "a great day" for the university and the 95-year-old civil rights organization. A diverse group of students pushed for the chapter.
"I'm happy that it was finally allowed, better late than never," Jawando said. "Now, hopefully, we can do civil rights advocacy, work on political action, register people to vote and make students aware of the issues that are important to minorities."
Jawando said the NAACP chapter also hopes to do some work to help improve D.C. schools.
The university was chartered by the Vatican in 1887 and has a governing board dominated by Catholic bishops, although most of its students are in secular programs. The school, where blacks last fall accounted for 386 of a student enrollment of 5,740, has been the target of protests after moving recently to bar prominent people from speaking on campus if they have advocated abortion rights.
Last month, the school blocked an invitation to actor Stanley Tucci to speak at a forum on Italian film because of his involvement with abortion rights groups. And last year, university officials canceled a bookstore appearance by Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's non-voting delegate in Congress, because of her abortion rights stance.
The initial decision to bar an NAACP chapter from the campus drew an angry rebuke in June from Kweisi Mfume, the organization's national president and chief executive, who called it "blatant discrimination."
In February, the NAACP's board of directors passed a resolution endorsing a woman's right to choose her method of birth control, including abortion. The organization also backed an abortion rights march in Washington in April.
Despite the initial furor, Jawando said he is glad the university and the NAACP have reached "a common understanding" that will benefit both the school and the community.
"It has long been my hope since I began this mission a year ago that the university, as a Catholic institution, would fully appreciate that the Catholic Church and organizations like the NAACP have fought together for decades for the rights and freedoms of the oppressed," he said.