A student governing body at Catholic University has taken an unprecedented first step toward recognizing a campus abortion-rights group, setting the stage for a confrontation with a university administration that has refused to sanction abortion-rights activities.
The action came Wednesday night, when the legislative arm of the Undergraduate Student Government Association voted 19 to 5 to recognize Catholic Students for Choice.
Joseph O'Leary, vice president of the student association, said the body decided to take the vote after the university twice declined to officially recognize the group.
"That is why we decided to go over their heads with this action," O'Leary said.
The student government legislative branch also passed a resolution Wednesday night by a vote of 21 to 3 that called for recognizing other student groups "whose opinons conflict with the missions of the university and the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church."
Official recognition means a group can use student facilities for meetings, can post fliers on campus and can use the university's name as part of its name.
The Rev. Robert M. Friday, vice president for student life, said the panel's votes "were obviously of concern" to the administration. Friday said the university could not sanction an abortion-rights group because of the contradiction with church teachings.
"At this point, there officially is no Catholic Students for Choice group on campus," Friday said.
"Most of the members of the legislative branch are obviously biased," said John Clerici, president of the College Republicans and a member of Students for Life, an antiabortion group.
"The university has laid down what its missions and goals are," he said. "What they voted to approve directly contradicts that. We view the formation of this group similar to the formation of a KKK group on campus," Clerici said.
The students' action is the latest incident in a controversy over freedom of speech issues at Catholic University, a 100-year-old institution in Northeast Washington.
In 1986, the university removed from the teaching roster Charles Curran, a theologian of international repute, who had a history of differing with aspects of traditional church teaching on such questions of sexual ethics as birth control, homosexuality and divorce.
In 1989, the university blocked National Organization for Women President Molly Yard from speaking on campus. In September of that year, the school administration first forbade the formation of the student abortion-rights group.
Student interest in forming the group was rekindled in September when students returned to campus and found that a student government officer during the summer had canceled a debate that was to have featured abortion-rights advocate Bill Baird because of concerns raised by university officials.
Baird alleged that several cardinals pressured the university to cancel the debate. University officials denied that accusation.
Students staged a freedom of expression rally adjacent to the campus in September during which Baird spoke. They also presented to the university administration a petition with signatures of 500 students that urged the university to be more open in discussing ideas.
Matthew Hennessy, a junior politics major at Catholic University and chairman of the Catholic Students for Choice group, said about 25 students are members of the group but dozens more had indicated an interest.
"Up until now, there had not been any student referendum on the abortion issue," he said. "Now that we've had one, the university administration is getting the message."
The undergraduate association's judiciary branch is expected to review the legislative branch's actions soon, deciding whether the vote violated the association's constitution.