First Amendment forum addresses religion in higher education
By Jacob Beltran
A three-person panel discussed the legal, religious and practical aspects of religion in higher education as part of the Faculty Forum discussion series Oct. 9 in Room 168 of Brooks City-Base Campus.
The panel included Michael S. Ariens, law professor at St. Mary’s University; the Rev. Mark Clarke, director of campus ministry at the Archdiocese of San Antonio; and Jamie Thompson, director of campus and community involvement at Trinity University.
Provost Brent Snow, vice president of academic affairs, initiated the series in Fall 2010.
“For me it’s not a resolution but a different consideration of ideas and thoughts,” Snow said.
The forum, sponsored by academic affairs, was put together by a committee organized by Snow which included William Bush, chair of the school of arts and sciences; Stefanie Wittenbach, university librarian; Judy Lewis, assistant professor of business; and Scott Peters, assistant professor in the department of leadership and counseling. About 30 employees attended the forum.
“It kind of petered out last academic year, so he wanted to reinitiate it this year,” Snow said.
In a phone interview Oct. 11, Bush, who heads the committee, said that members decided to make the first forum about religion in part because of a faculty complaint in Fall 2011 concerning ornamental crosses placed on the tower at the university’s entrance.
According to The Mesquite, “Removal of crosses generates varied response in Facebook forum,” Nov. 22, 2011, adjunct criminology professor Sissy Bradford argued the crosses on the tower are inappropriate at a publicly funded institution. Read more
“Whenever there’s controversy on campus, one of the things the university is supposed to do is sponsor a thoughtful open discussion,” Bush said. “That was the idea behind the panel and the topic that we chose.”
He said that the discussion was not however specifically about the crosses, but the issue of the free exercise clause and the establishment clause of the First Amendment and how they play out in the university setting.
“That was the charge we put to the three panelists we recruited. We chose the three panelists to talk about specific aspects of the constitution,” Bush said.
Ariens, the first of three guests to speak, began by outlining the first amendment and some of the ambiguity that goes along with its wording: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
“There’s no way you can make no law, so in terms of textualism it’s difficult to understand ‘Congress shall make no law’,” Ariens said.
He said universities are designed for sharing vastly different views and that students are not to be indoctrinated, as they often are in grade and high school.
“It’s not learning different facts; it’s how do I fit, or not fit, in with this culture and what are the handful of ideas that help me understand this better?” he said, framing a question that students across universities ask themselves.
Ariens said two clauses define what the government cannot do beyond the establishment of religion, or prohibit the exercise thereof. One protects liberty by limiting the ability of states to choose favorites in terms of religion and two, free exercise protects the liberty of individuals by protecting the desire to engage in religious beliefs and actions.
“How far they’re protected becomes a hotly contested issue,” he said.
In the next segment, Clarke, after giving a history of scientists and educators who were Catholic, discussed the role of the church in higher education.
Clarke said that the church’s role is to make sure the search for wisdom goes uninhibited.
“The goal of campus ministry is to express the church’s desire to present all students with something more,” he said.
Clarke was included in the panel to address the cultural and religious context people of how San Antonio might shape the way people think about the questions that were brought up in the forum.
Clarke discussed the church’s models in scientific inquiry and its role in higher education.
“That was fine,” Bush said, “but the particular San Antonio issue was left till the end.”
“I think father Clarke partly answered the cultural question, he did digress a little bit in talking about the historical aspect,” he said.
During the Q&A session of the forum, Bush asked how San Antonio shapes the way people think about religion in higher education.
“The Catholic religion was here first,” Clarke said.
The final speaker, Thompson, shared her experiences with religion’s impact on students and its coverage by the The Trinitonian, Trinity University’s student newspaper.
She began by presenting facts collected by Trinity about religious affiliations of the student body. Seventy percent of students at Trinity were Christian, 24 percent chose not to answer and about one percent are either Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or other. The university has 11 religious student organizations.
“We value all cultures and want Trinity to be a welcoming place,” she said, “especially because this is their four to six year home.”
In November 2009, Trinity students lobbied for the words “year of our lord” to be taken off the diplomas to reflect the university’s diverse culture.
According to the Trinitonian, in April 2010, Trinity’s board of trustees voted to keep the phrase on the diploma.
Although the board voted to keep the phrase, Thompson said students were surprised their arguments were acknowledged by the board.
During the Q&A session, Bush asked what the university’s responsibility was to police the student comment sections.
Thompson said the university has a responsibility to create an environment where students will be conscious and aware of other students and can experiment and try new things.
“It happened in a small community, so people were assaulting members by name in the comments section,” Thompson said. “They would say Jane Doe doesn’t belong here, when in fact she was born and raised in Houston,” she said, as an example of the kind of commenting that was found in The Trinitonian.
An audience member asked Clarke how to cope with San Antonio being such a religious community.
Clarke responded that it’s difficult to escape an address named after a Catholic saint and that residents will have to adapt the best they can.
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “You have to accept the cultural aspect of the place you live.”
The next forum is Oct. 23 with biology professor Rodolfo Valdez. The First Amendment will be discussed in the Spring.
“There’s a saying that the solution to speech is more speech,” Bush said. “I think the committee feels that the forum was a success, although we would’ve liked a greater turnout.”