THE WORDS just came out. The president of the University of Portland (UP) decided to tell a crowd of students that he knew their school had same sex-couples on staff—and if they went public, "then we would have trouble."
Now, it seems, the president is the one with trouble.
On February 18, William Beauchamp, president of the city's largest Catholic university, was speaking at what seemed like an intimate gathering. But Beauchamp's blunder went viral on Twitter, in the process galvanizing the university's student body against him. Now some students are demanding the school change its stance on sexual orientation. And—facing down calcified religious dogma and serious legal hurdles—they've got their first target: the school's nondiscrimination policy.
Ten days after Beauchamp's remarks, roughly 120 students duct-taped their mouths and gathered in the center of campus to kick off a campaign protesting their school's policy of "silence" toward LGBTQ community members. The student activists, under the name Redefine Purple Pride, after the school's colors, are demanding the school add sexual orientation to its equal opportunity and nondiscrimination policy. The policy—while providing protections for race, age, and gender, among others—says nothing about protecting LGBTQ staff, students, and faculty.
"It just seems backward to be in one of the most progressive cities in the nation and to be such an unprogressive school," Redefine Purple Pride member Casey Andersen told the Mercury.
And that lack of a policy has some other consequences.
Joey Kerns, programs director at the Portland-based LGBTQ rights organization the Equity Foundation, says the school doesn't let its students accept academic scholarships from the group.
"The University of Portland has repeatedly refused to sign our contracts," Kerns said via email, "thereby preventing their students from receiving scholarships from Equity Foundation."
UP spokeswoman Laurie Kelley emailed that this was a "misunderstanding," and that "UP does not discriminate." UP students also told the Mercury the school does not accept Equity Foundation scholarships.
But progress goes through Beauchamp, who's made it clear he won't change school policy. And legally—if not morally—he's probably in the right.
UP spokesman Joe Kuffner told the Mercury that Beauchamp wouldn't be available to comment for this story. But Beauchamp told the student newspaper, The Beacon, he wouldn't address the issue unless it "were to become a public scandal." It's one of a series of carefully crafted statements making the case for inaction.
Responding to the Mercury's request for an interview, Kelley sent an email that promised UP would "work harder than ever within our community to make sure every member feels supported."
She declined to say whether UP was considering changing its nondiscrimination policy. But many think Beauchamp has already signaled the school won't.
"As a religious institution," Beauchamp said in a statement issued on the day of the protest, "we are not required under state and federal law to include sexual orientation in our nondiscrimination policy... The University of Portland is a Roman Catholic institution and is guided by Catholic moral teaching on sexuality."
Beauchamp is correct; religious organizations are legally allowed to discriminate on religious grounds. While the 2007 Oregon Equality Act—which also applies to students—makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against their employees based on sexual orientation, "bona fide" religious institutions, including religious schools, are exempt from this standard and can take "any employment action" based on "religious belief about sexual orientation." Federal law includes no protections at all.
Queer and civil rights groups have lobbied for years to make it federally illegal for employers to discriminate based on sexual orientation. The most recent bill offered for sacrifice is the Employee Non-Discrimination Act of 2011, sponsored by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley.
A second bill, which would extend similar rights to LGBTQ students at public schools, also died. Both of Oregon's senators, Merkley and Ron Wyden, were among the co-sponsors.
But neither bill would have helped LGBTQ students or employees at religious schools. So why bother trying to write protections into a school discrimination policy that might not be legally binding?
"Having a policy in place lessens the chances of discrimination," says Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group.
Warbelow also suggests that any school not following its internal policy might also be exposed to potential lawsuits. And, although she didn't say it, that means the courts eventually could do what lawmakers won't.
To date, a handful of Catholic colleges have added sexual orientation to their nondiscrimination policies, so it's not unheard of. Students at UP want to be next. And there are hints the school could change.
In 2011, under Beauchamp's guidance, UP crafted a non-binding "Statement of Inclusion" that at least gives a nod to the school's LGBTQ community. Beauchamp has also made attempts to change the school's culture, and has publicly decried discrimination based on sexual orientation. But members of Redefine Purple Pride—who say their protest isn't about attacking the president—say these steps aren't enough.
UP's board of regents is scheduled to meet this May, and members of Redefine Purple Pride tell the Mercury they'll take the issue directly to members.
"We don't want our message to come from the president," says UP student Maraya Sullivan, "clearly he isn't interested."
As for suggestions that students give up trying to change a religious institution that's using doctrine to exclude people? Here's why not: "I would say that social justice has been a major part of all our classes," Sullivan says. "And it is a huge part of Catholicism."