Cross Purposes

The Catholic Church's right turn touches off battles over dogma and diversity at the University of St. Thomas

In March, Sovereign says, Welch told her the administration had decided to conduct a national search. Officially, she says he told her, she was welcome to apply. Unofficially, she would not be considered. As promised, Dean Welch provided her with positive references, calling her "exceptional" and "outstanding" and noting that her performance had "exceeded our expectations."

Welch's version of events differs slightly. He did go to his supervisor to start the process of asking for permission to post the job internally, he says. He was a new dean, he continues, and therefore unaware that St. Thomas rarely uses the process, preferring to conduct broader searches. He was preparing the paperwork to ask for an exception when the e-mail to Sovereign from Relevant Radio arrived. During the ensuing discussion with the vice president for academic affairs, he realized that Sovereign's background was a bigger deal than he would have guessed.

"Ashley didn't do anything wrong," he says. "She didn't hide anything, she disclosed everything on her vitae. But other people in the community saw that she'd been employed at a site that very clearly advocates abortion."

When he spoke to Sovereign, he adds, he tried to be as honest as he could. He believed that her past work would be a "strong negative" during the search process, although he also believed his own evaluation of her "would be a strong positive."

The position hasn't yet been posted externally; the university plans to enter into another 12-month contract now and to advertise the job later this year or in early 2007, says Doug Hennes, vice president for governmental and university affairs. "Ashley is welcome to apply when they post the position," he adds. "It's premature to say she would or would not get the job."

Although it's commonly thought that religious institutions are exempt from discrimination lawsuits, Minnesota courts have ruled that this is true only insofar as the alleged victim was performing a function tied to the school's religious mission, says Minneapolis employment attorney Stephen Cooper. "A religious organization in its religious activities has the right to use a litmus test," he says. "But in its non-religious activities, it can't. The line is ambiguous."

It's possible to argue that a liturgical choir director leading a pilgrimage is an activity associated with St. Thomas's Catholic identity, he imagines. Sovereign's situation, if her version of events proves correct, might be a different story. Not only is it harder to envision how placing psychology students in training programs is a religious endeavor, a Minnesota law passed to protect the rights of smokers prohibits employers from considering employees' lawful behavior outside of the workplace.

In April, Sovereign filed a grievance with the university. "There is clearly one official position and another 'unofficial' position that contradict each other, making one of them an untruth," she wrote. "I am left with the following choices: to apply for the position knowing I will not be selected, which would raise serious questions in the professional community about my abilities and work performance, or to not apply, which raises questions about my ability to commit to employment and my fidelity to the institution. Neither of these is an acceptable choice, and clearly the university's actions constitute unfair and/or unreasonable treatment, as they will have significant negative consequences on my career." A faculty panel last week agreed to hear her complaint.

In April, Father Dease approved a written policy barring faculty and staff from bringing unmarried partners on student trips. The move followed three months of public meetings and forums and the release of a series of unranked recommendations formulated by a committee appointed to study the issue in the wake of the faculty travel controversies. Ultimately the decision was Dease's alone, according to university relations' Doug Hennes: "The archbishop said, do what you have to do."

"The discussions of the past weeks have not been easy," Dease wrote. "Feelings run deep because the various values under consideration are extraordinarily important, touching as they do on people's commitments, loyalties, and ways of interpreting life's deepest meaning. I realize that none of us asked for this challenge. It was brought to us by circumstances that compelled first students and parents, then faculty and staff, to ask that we clarify the 'conscience of the institution.'

"I have never been willing to concede that 'a Catholic university,' to quote George Bernard Shaw, is a 'contradiction in terms.' Instead, the mission of a Catholic university involves striking a 'delicate balance.'"

In the short term, anyhow, the decision appears to have done little to restore that balance. Indeed, it may have emboldened the university's most vociferous conservatives. Ellen Kennedy, for instance, reports receiving menacing phone calls. Hennes reports that in the hours after the decision was announced, both he and Dease received a number of calls and e-mails. He says that all were supportive. Last week, the faculty senate finally passed David Landry's resolutions opposing a ban on travel by unmarried partners and demanding equal treatment for the Allies. Both passed by an overwhelming margin.

In the end, Landry sees the controversy of the past months as an entree into a fundamental discussion. "For me the question is not whether we're going to be a Catholic school or not, but what kind of Catholic school we're going to be," he says. "Catholic schools across the country, they run the spectrum. There are schools like Ave Maria [where], for example, if you've ever been divorced, you can't work there. And if you get divorced, you get fired. Thomas Aquinas College in California requires all faculty and staff to make an oath of fidelity and a profession of faith at the beginning of every year. The oath of fidelity is that you'll never dissent from a single one of the Catholic Church's teachings."

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