College Scrutinizes Christian Fellowship

Dec 20, 2002 10:21 AM EST

The Undergraduate Council’s decision last month to postpone its grant to the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship (HRCF) has led College administrators to scrutinize the student group’s bylaws and constitution.

At a council meeting last month, representative Jason L. Lurie ’05 charged that the Harvard Asian Baptist Student Koinonia (ABSK) and HRCF discriminate on the basis of religion, and said that supporting these organizations would violate the council’s constitution.

According to excerpts from their constitutions that Lurie read at the meeting, members of both organizations have to subscribe to the groups’ faiths in order to be eligible for leadership positions.

HRCF’s constitution states: “Officers of this organization must subscribe without reserve to...principles of faith” that include belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the existence of the Holy Spirit.

While the grant for ABSK was approved the following week, council Finance Committee Chair Jessica P. Lau ’04 said the HRCF funding remains tabled because administrators are scrutinizing the fellowship’s policies.

Associate Dean of the College David P. Illingworth ’71 wrote in an e-mail that he examined HCRF’s constitution and met with the organization’s executive board after learning of the events at the council meeting.

Illingworth also wrote that he and Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 have “raised the issue of possible discrimination with the Committee on College Life.”

Illingworth indicated that HRCF failed to comply with the Faculty of Arts and Science’s (FAS) non-discrimination policy. According to the FAS Student Handbook, no official undergraduate organization may have a constitution that discriminates on the basis of creed or several other characteristics.

“The sense of the [Committee on College Life] on this matter was quite clear: student groups should not discriminate for membership or in the choice of officers,” Illingworth wrote. “I have let the HRCF know of this opinion. I have offered to work with them to develop constitutional changes which would bring them into compliance.”

Lewis also wrote in an e-mail that the administration gets involved with student groups’ criteria for choosing leadership “only with great reluctance.”

When the council decided to table the bill, Deborah C. Morton ’03, a member of the organization’s executive board, noted that membership in HRCF is open to all.

Lewis cited the open membership as reason to drop any faith requirements for becoming a leader in the group.

“The simple principle that [all] members of student organizations should be eligible to be officers seems hard to oppose,” he wrote.

Morton, for her part, questioned the ability of a non-Christian to lead the group and said the council’s tabling of HRCF’s grant amounted to “discriminating against religious organizations.”

But according to Lewis, even without the restrictive clause in HRCF’s constitution, the group’s leadership is unlikely to be compromised.

“The likelihood seems low that an officer would be elected who had articulated his or her opposition to the organization’s basic purposes,” he wrote.

Morton wrote on behalf of the HRCF executive board that, to her knowledge, “no one actually seeking leadership has expressed concern with the policy.”

“We do not believe our constitution is in violation of University policy at this time,” Morton added.

Committee on College Life member Jennifer S. Axsom ’04 said that though the official FAS rules governing student groups do not explicitly deal with selection of organizations’ leadership, the committee’s recent discussion has focused on whether to include explicit mention of the matter.

“It will be a while before there will be a change,” she said. “They are seeking a wide range of opinions.”

Though HRCF leadership indicated that the administration might force changes to its constitution—Morton wrote on behalf of the group’s executive board that the administration has “not yet” forced the change—it called the administration’s dealings fair and positive.

Illingworth wrote that “the College will not take any action until the HRCF has an opportunity to consider all of this and decide among themselves the best course to follow.”

In the meantime, HRCF finds itself without its major source of funding, which will likely increase the costs of retreats for its members, according to Morton wrote.

“We were very surprised,” she wrote. “HRCF makes every effort to be a diverse and welcoming group.”

By Alexander J. Blenkinsopp