Friday, August 25, 2006

Georgetown University has banned outside Protestant ministries from holding on-campus events and using the school’s name, prompting group leaders to question whether the prestigious Catholic school is restricting religious choice.

“All we’re wanting is diversity,” said Kevin Offner, a staff leader for InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship. “We’re simply saying, ‘Can’t we worship and conduct our meetings in a way appropriate to our tradition?’ And it feels like [Georgetown is] saying ‘no.’ ”

In a letter last week to leaders of the campus’s Affiliated Ministries, the Rev. Constance C. Wheeler, a Georgetown Protestant chaplain, said that “as a result of our new direction for the upcoming academic year, we have decided not to renew any covenant agreements” with the groups.

The decision — which affects a few hundred students belonging to six Christian groups — forbids the ministries from having any “activity or presence” on campus, including worship services, retreats or helping students move into their dorms.

The groups also are prohibited from using the Georgetown name in publicity.

Group leaders say university staff read the letter at an Aug. 17 meeting that began and closed with prayer. During the meeting, the leaders said, school officials stated they made the decision because the Office of Campus Ministry could not control what type of message the groups teach.

Georgetown is “caught between being a private institution with a particular identity, but also wanting to be a real university,” said Shawn Galyen, a leader of Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship, which ministered to more than 100 Georgetown students. “They essentially have weirdly split the difference by choosing to disallow us.”

Georgetown was founded in 1789 as a private Jesuit Catholic university and had about 4,200 students last fall.

The school welcomes people of all faiths, and employs chaplains that minister to and hold worship services for Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox Christian and Protestant students, according to its Web site.

“Students are permitted to join any group they wish,” Georgetown spokesman Erik Smulson said. “This decision affects [only] campus ministries.”

Campus officials said they removed the groups because of a restructuring of its Protestant chaplaincy — which provides pastoral care for Georgetown students and organizes several worship services. They also said the decision was based on the desire to unify Protestant students under university leadership.

“With this restructuring has come a desire in the Protestant chaplaincy to build the ministry from within Georgetown and its Protestant student leaders, rather than rely on outside groups or fellowships,” Mr. Smulson said. “Hopefully, this restructuring of the chaplaincy will provide a more consistent and focused effort to work with the Protestant students to ensure that their spiritual needs are being met.”

David French, a lawyer in Tennessee for the Alliance Defense Fund, said that in recent years more than 50 colleges, including Harvard and Princeton universities, have attempted to end associations with religious groups.

Policies on the issue vary at other religious universities across the country.

At Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Jim Caswell, vice president for student affairs, said the school allows on-campus meeting for outside religious groups including InterVarsity, the Catholic Campus Ministry, a Mormon group and a pagan nature group.

“We have an open invitation to folks for those kind of informal and formal conversations related to faith and religion,” he said.

Baylor University officials said the Baptist school does not officially recognize organizations outside of its own Baptist Student Ministries, but allows other Christian organizations to advertise on campus and hold one on-campus event each semester.

The Rev. Robert Schlageter, chaplain at the Catholic University of America in the District, said the school does not offer ministry options to Protestant students because the university is 86 percent Catholic.

“When we did try that, there wasn’t enough critical mass for students interested in them to succeed,” he said.

However, the school still encourages its non-Catholic students to practice their faiths, Mr. Schlageter also said.

Ministry leaders at Georgetown say tensions between the groups and the school are nothing new.

The Protestant chaplains had required leaders of the recently banned groups to attend school-sponsored worship services and also encourage students to do so. In addition, the leaders were required to sign a covenant in which they promised not to “proselytize nor undermine another faith community,” a blurry line for some Christian groups whose main goal is evangelism.

“I’ve never really heard them say, ‘No, you may not evangelize,’” Mr. Offner said. “But I do think we need to be careful in our defining of words and terms.”

Undergraduate classes at Georgetown begin Wednesday. Some students who participated with the outside ministries have said they will continue to gather as friends on campus for Bible study and prayer, but not under the ministries’ names.

They also have begun writing letters to university President John J. DeGioia and other university officials protesting the decision.

“My students at this point feel that they do not have a spiritual home on that campus,” Mr. Galyen said. “We made a niche.”

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