Saturday, September 23, 2006

Georgetown University officials have formed a committee to evaluate the school’s relationship with off-campus ministries but say the move will not immediately change a recent decision to bar Protestant groups from having an official presence on campus.

“It’s definitely too early to tell,” Georgetown University spokesman Jacques Arsenault said. “The formation of the committee doesn’t change any decisions that were made. It will be making recommendations … for a direction that the university may want to go.”

Still, leaders of several Protestant groups disbarred from campus hope the University Advisory Committee can improve relationships between their ministries and school officials, who have said the decision was in part based on poor communication and the groups’ lack of cooperation.

“I’m genuinely hopeful that this committee can together forge out a new understanding of how Protestant students will be cared for on campus,” said Kevin Offner, a graduate student adviser for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and member of the committee. “It’s a step in the right direction.”

The Rev. Philip Boroughs, Georgetown’s vice president for mission and ministry, announced the advisory committee members last week.

Committee members say their objectives include evaluating the ability of Georgetown’s Office of Campus Ministry and Protestant Chaplaincy to meet the goals of Protestant students and proposing “alternative structures and ways of proceeding compatible with Georgetown values for the relationship between on-campus and off-campus ministries.”

The six Protestant groups — known collectively as Affiliated Ministries — learned of the school’s decision during an Aug. 17 meeting.

The decision barred ministries from having a presence on campus, including no more worship services, retreats or helping students move into dorms. The groups also are prohibited from using the Georgetown name in publicity.

School leaders later clarified that students still can invite the outside groups on campus for prayer and fellowship, but the groups cannot operate as part of the campus ministry.

The decision prompted criticism from legal group the Alliance Defense Fund, which sent a letter to Georgetown officials stating that the university’s decision does not afford Protestant students the same rights as Jewish and Muslim students, who are served by on-campus student associations overseen by school faculty.

Group lawyers also said the school would be violating students’ First Amendment rights if it were a public institution. David French, director of group’s Center for Academic Freedom, said the lawyers are providing legal counsel to InterVarsity and have not ruled out a lawsuit against Georgetown.

“There are several groups that function under university auspices that are explicitly religious and have a high degree of autonomy,” Mr. French said. “The university is denying that to InterVarsity and other Christian groups.”

Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship student leader Hannah Coyne, who also is serving on the advisory committee, said her organization is exploring the possibility of operating as a student club under Georgetown’s Student Activities Commission.

Mr. Arsenault said all religious student organizations must operate under the Office of Campus Ministry. The Muslim Student Association and Jewish Student Association partially operate under the activities commission, but Mr. Arsenault said the groups only receive funding from the commission for cultural, not religious, events.

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