A campus Christian group that receives funding from the student activity fee is coming under scrutiny after a student was asked by advisors to step down from its leadership team when he told them that he had openly accepted his homosexuality. This incident is also raising questions about the effectiveness of campus mechanisms for addressing instances of discrimination.
Chris Donohoe ’09, who joined the Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship when he was a freshman, said he had been openly struggling to reconcile his sexuality with his faith in Chi Alpha before he was asked to step down from the leadership team by Matt and Tracy Herman, the organization’s pastors. The Hermans, both members of Chi Alpha at Missouri State University before graduating in 2002, became Cornell Chi Alpha’s campus pastors in 2006.
The leadership team consists of 12 or 13 especially dedicated students who lead bible studies, teach and are “good examples,” according to Danielle D’Ambrosio ’10, Chi Alpha’s president. The leadership team differs from titled leadership positions because students do not have to apply to be part of the team.
Before joining the leadership team, Donohoe was vice president during his junior year. To enter a titled position in Chi Alpha, students must apply through the Hermans and demonstrate that they uphold certain values, including not engaging in premarital sex, and refraining from drinking alcohol and taking drugs, according to Donohoe.
“I thought it would be an awesome opportunity to be an openly gay man in a Christian organization,” Donohoe said.
After Donohoe finished his term as vice president, he was going to be on the leadership team last fall. The Hermans told Donohoe that they were comfortable with his position as long as he did not engage in a relationship. However, after Donohoe met his boyfriend last summer and affirmed his acceptance of his sexuality, the Hermans asked him to step down from the team without consulting the rest of the organization.
“I told them I’ve thought about [my sexuality] and I’m 100 percent OK with my sexuality. … I wanted the opportunity to show them I love god and I’m gay and it’s OK,” Donohoe said.
D’Ambrosio explained that Donohoe was asked to step down because he no longer believed his sexuality was a sin and stopped actively working to overcome it, disregarding the Bible.
“The decision to ask Chris to step down was not that he did something wrong in having homosexual tendencies. [It was because] he no longer thought it was wrong. … I support the decision fully,” D’Ambrosio said.
Because Chi Alpha is an independent student organization registered with Cornell’s Student Activities Office, the situation has provoked a reaction from Cornell administrators.
“We are very concerned with what happened and we want to make sure this is a campus that does not discriminate in this way,” Dean of Students Kent Hubbell ’67 said.
Independent student organizations at Cornell are prohibited from discriminating membership on the basis of race, religion, gender and sexual orientation, according to the Student Activities Offices Independent Organization Contract. The anti-discrimination policy, however, does not extend to the leadership of independent student organizations.
While registered as an “independent” student organization, Chi Alpha still receives a share of the student activity fee, distributed by the Student Assembly Finance Commission.
This Spring, the SAFC allocated Chi Alpha upwards of $700, according to a source who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Yuliya Neverova ’10, co-chair of the SAFC, explained that the SAFC does not investigate the specific goals or actions of groups as it allocates funds to different campus organizations.
Instead, the SAFC relies on the Student Activities Office to determine which groups are in “good standing.”
According to the SAO website, organizations are obligated to “operate in a manner consistent with the goals and standards of the [University],” which include a prohibition on denying a person admission to an activity on the basis of sexual orientation.
She said that the SAO and the SAFC may investigate the situation, though she conceded that there was little recent SAFC precedent to follow for handling these circumstances.
“We haven’t had to deal with this issue before,” she said.
Donohoe has a long-standing relationship with the Chi Alpha leadership and the decision to ask him to step down was made over a substantial period of time.
“The leadership of Chi Alpha and Chris have had a relationship and very in-depth now have been grappling with this particular situation, so this was not just an arbitrary sort of circumstance,” Kenneth I. Clarke, Sr., D. Min, Cornell United Religious Work director, said.
After he was asked to step down, Donohoe remained in the organization but sought to create a dialogue with Chi Alpha, to both hold the organization accountable for asking him to step down due to his sexuality and to educate instead of punish.
“There was a consequence for my belief — that it’s OK [to] be a homosexual. … I believe you should be held responsible and accountable to your beliefs so that Chi Alpha is answering to everyone to the community,” Donohoe said.
Donohoe contacted Mary Beth Grant, the judicial administrator, to pursue an outlet. Grant informed Donohoe that no legal action could be taken through the J.A. since Donohoe was permitted to remain in the organization, Donohoe explained. Donohoe filed a bias report a month ago and contacted Dean Hubbell and Rev. Clarke.
Grant could not be reached for comment.
Donohoe met with Hubbell and Clarke to find the best avenue to pursue action, by addressing the issue as it relates to students rights — why outsiders are coming into a student organization and limiting students meeting with the Hermans and/or changing the campus code, Donohoe said.
“Student organizations are supposed to be by and for students. There are systems of having advisors, but they advise, they don’t supervise,” Hubbell said. “The students are the ones who make the final decisions.”
Since Chi Alpha is a part of CURW, the organization is held to a CURW covenant that permits religious organizations to make decisions based on doctrinal convictions, but also prohibits organizations from excluding members based on their sexual orientation.
“Certainly we do not support … discrimination of any sort. On the other hand, what makes this complex is the fact that according to the CURW covenant, organizations may be able to make decisions based on doctrinal convictions,” Clarke said.
Hubbell and Clarke have communicated the University’s position to the Hermans and the next step will be a meeting between all parties involved.
In the meantime, the controversy has spread across various campus listservs, and the Student Assembly will discuss on Thursday a resolution about the future of Chi Alpha.
“It is unfortunate that both a registered student organization and an SAFC-funded organization has mistreated its members and leaders in such an egregious manner. A resolution regarding the group’s current funding and funding eligibility in the future will be discussed at [Thursday’s] Student Assembly meeting,” Ryan Lavin ’09, S.A. president, said yesterday.
A vigil will take place Friday on the Arts Quad outside of Chi Alpha’s meeting.
“This is more than a slap in the face to one individual, this is a slap in the face to the entire LGBT community, especially those of faith,” Donohoe said. “Chi Alpha is basically saying that my sexuality — along with the sexualities of every other LGBT community member — is not legitimate in the eyes of god. Chi Alpha must recognize that this belief is hurtful and discriminatory. It’s time for Chi Alpha to face the Cornell community and own up.”
Homosexuality is considered a sin, which is “biblically based,” according to Jessica Longoria ’09, former president of Chi Alpha.
“If you’re committing sins you will not enter the kingdom of god,” Longoria said.
“My personal belief is that … I don’t believe it is a genetic thing,” D’Ambrosio said.
But despite these beliefs the situation has been difficult for all involved.
“I’m still friends with [Chris], I know a lot of people in Chi Alpha are friends with him. … Just to say that this is a really difficult situation for all of us. … I think we’re all struggling,” Longoria said.
Likewise, D’Ambrosio affirmed Chi Alpha’s relationship with Donohoe.
“I think that a lot of times Christian organizations do get a bad name for taking a stance against homosexuality because it looks like we are condemning a person but I want to make it clear that we have nothing against Chris or another person for choosing to be a homosexual,” D’Ambrosio said.
Matt and Tracy Herman declined to comment for this story until a meeting is held between all parties.