April 5, 2010

Skorton Responds To Student Assembly Resolution On Discrimination

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The Student Assembly may deny student activity fee funding to student groups that discriminate in selecting their leaders, President David Skorton said Monday. Groups that engage in such discrimination will, however, be able to retain official University recognition and support, he added.

Skorton’s response to the Student Assembly’s Resolution 44 also rejects an expansion of categories of non-discrimination, including height, ancestry, immigration status, religious practice, socioeconomic status and weight.Skorton cited the inclusiveness of the University’s existing policy on discrimination, approved by the Cornell Board of Trustees, which “bans all forms of legally prohibited discrimination in all University educational programs and activities and employment.” The existing policy prohibits Independent Student Organizations from discriminating on the basis of membership, but the Resolution sought to extend this provision to leadership. Skorton expressed concerns surrounding this aspect of the clause and its relation to the First Amendment.“There is a conflict, as the S.A. acknowledges, between the non-discrimination provision regarding sexual orientation on the one hand, and the leadership practices of some student religious organizations which proclaim that homosexual conduct is inimical to the group’s genuinely held religious beliefs,” Skorton stated. “This position may strike many of us as outdated, indeed offensive; but First Amendment principles protect even offensive speech and, within certain limits, recognize the right of private associations to tailor their membership and leadership practices.”The issue of discrimination in leadership sparked the event that led the S.A. to draft Resolution 44 in the first place. Last April, Christopher Donohoe ’09 was asked to step down from his leadership position in the Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship after openly accepting his homosexuality. The group cited a fundamental disagreement in belief systems, but student outrage called for action.The Student Assembly Finance Committee temporarily suspended funding to Chi Alpha. Funding was later restored because under previously established guidelines the SAFC did not have the power to exact such action. A section of Resolution 44, however — approved by Skorton Monday — appropriates this power.“He allowed the S.A. to retain the power of the purse,” S.A. President Rammy Salem ’10 said. “This is in our hands now. It’s something we need to deliberate to see how we’re going to change the SAFC guidelines.”The U.S. Supreme Court is currently hearing a case that deals with issues in the same vein of last April’s Chi Alpha controversy.Christian Legal Society (CLS) v. Martinez will decide whether a public law school may deny funding to a faith-based organization that shapes its voting membership around a set of core religious beliefs. The outcome of CLS v. Martinez could have significant implications for how the SAFC uses its ability to control funding.Though Cornell, as a private institution, is not bound to uphold the court’s decision, Skorton urged the S.A. to take federal policy into consideration in its decisions.“Although as a unit under the aegis of a private university the S.A. is not legally obligated to follow constitutional law court decisions, the Supreme Court’s airing of the competing policy interests — and judgment as to which should prevail — may help inform the S.A.’s discussion as it reconsiders the elements of its resolution.”Skorton’s suggestions for the resolution move the S.A. into discussion about the possibilities and implications of an amended Resolution 44.The S.A.’s next step in its non-discrimination dialogue is to invite Skorton to meet to discuss his response and flesh out the future of Resolution 44.“I think all in all it is a step forward in the right direction,” Salem said. “It was necessary to get the conversation going.”Though he was largely positive about Skorton’s response, Salem expressed concerns about the apparent distinction between religious discrimination and other forms of discrimination.Andrew Brokman ’11, S.A. representative At-Large, on the other hand, had serious reservations about Skorton’s suggestions, namely surrounding the issue of classes of non-discrimination which, Skorton argued, were an unnecessary addition to existing policy.“All we did was take a university policy that already existed and adopted it to classes … so that part of his response I just didn’t understand at all,” Brokman said. “With regards to the addition of protected classes, I think he got that wrong.”As for the issue of non-discrimination in leadership, Salem presented a compromise that would allow IOs to amend their charters to allow for the recall of a leader deemed incongruous with the core beliefs of the group in its entirety.“If a leader is democratically elected, they must be democratically removed and not taken aside by two or three people in a closed room and told that he needs to step down,” Salem said. “If the entirety of the membership thinks the leader is inadequate in their position then that leader can be removed.”Brokman took issue with Skorton’s interpretation of the Resolution’s implications for discrimination in leadership. “In reality the clause never mentions leaders. It also never mentions special exceptions to religious groups,” Brokman said.On the issue of funding for IOs, however, Brokman did agree with Skorton’s decision.“We can no longer justify using student money to perpetuate discrimination against students themselves and I think Skorton understands that part,” he said.Though no definitive timeline has been set yet, Salem hopes the S.A.’s new leaders will begin to address new SAFC guidelines this month.The S.A. was not the only organization concerned with Resolution 44 and its implications for discrimination and freedom of expression on campus.Will Creeley, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy for The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, sent a letter to Skorton Mar. 3 urging strong action against the measures taken in the Resolution.“By its plain language, Resolution 44 unequivocally denies student organizations the right to require that those students seeking voting membership or leadership positions actually share the group’s core beliefs,” Creeley stated. “In so doing, the Student Assembly renders freedom of expressive association an empty right.”The letter continued, “In practice, Resolution 44 would grant a majoritarian veto to the Cornell student body over what faiths or belief systems are acceptable on campus. It is hard to imagine a greater threat to the rights of religious and ideological minorities at Cornell.”

Original Author: Dani Neuharth-Keusch