Pro-choice ACLU barred on campus

Andrea Wilson

The American Catholic Church and the American Civil Liberties Union have been longtime sparring partners over contraception and abortion issues. This year, their historical opposition played out right here on campus when the University refused to allow a group of students to form its own chapter of the outspoken political group.

Instead, the University allowed the students to form its own group, the Villanova Civil Liberties Association, expressly not affiliated with the national organization that helped secure the legalization of abortion 31 years ago.

“It’s problematic to have a group affiliated with a national organization that takes positions against Catholic teachings,” said Tom Mogan, director of Student Development. “The ACLU does a lot of things that are consistent with the mission … but there are some of their issues that are in conflict with the Catholic teaching.”

The Catholic Church’s doctrine that “life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception” stands in direct opposition to the position of the ACLU, which eagerly worked toward the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortions through the sixth month of pregnancy. Since that landmark case, the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project has continually supported abortion rights. Most recently, the group resisted the 2003 ban on partial birth abortions, hailed as a step toward victory by pro-life Catholics. The ban was subsequently challenged by three court rulings.

Walking the line between doctrine and discourse has become a familiar position for many national Catholic colleges. Last year, the Catholic University of America’s move to bar a campus chapter of the pro-choice National Association for the Advancement of Colored People spurred a national controversy. Last month, that university overturned its earlier ruling and announced it would allow the chapter if the students pledged that their group would not advocate abortion or any views in conflict with Catholic teaching.

Seton Hall University has recently been the center of a debate over a campus gay-straight alliance. Villanova University has had an active Gay-Straight Alliance since 2002.

In some cases, the University does allow the presence of campus groups that, by way of national affiliations, contradict Catholic teachings. The College Democrats stand with the ACLU on the issue of abortion rights. The College Republicans support the option of the death penalty, also condemned by Catholic doctrine.

Explaining why these two nationally affiliated political groups are allowed on campus, Mogan said, “They’re national political parties. They are well-established parts of our government.”

“We take a look at what the group’s goals are,” he said. “We felt that they could accomplish their goals without affiliating with the ACLU.”

VCLA President Jim Saksa said the VCLA’s current goals have been focused on criticizing the death penalty and promoting students’ rights, especially related to campus fire drill and search procedures.

Saksa agreed that the affiliation with the national organization was not essential, but added that it would have been helpful.

He said, “Do I need it? No. But would it be an amazing resource, and would it prevent me from having to explain my organization? Yes.”

Referring to the campus chapter of the national group Amnesty International, he said, “That’s an amazing recognition that makes them more viable as an organization.”

The University allows speakers whose views contradict its values to appear on campus, like Jesuit Rev. Robert Drinan and former presidential candidate Howard Dean, both of whom visited this semester. Neither of these guests came to campus to promote their pro-choice stances on abortion, however.

“There are definitely times they turn their eye,” Saksa said.

Like some other Catholic law schools, including those at Georgetown University and the University of Notre Dame, the University’s School of Law has an official and active chapter of the ACLU, and ascribes to the same Catholic values as the University. The school’s mission statement says it “is rooted in the Catholic tradition that emphasizes the unique value of individual human lives.”

When asked about the difference between Catholic law schools and undergraduate schools, Saksa said, “Personally, I see no difference whatsoever. What I was told was that because the ACLU is a legalistic organization … a law school ought to have one.”

To help argue for the national affiliation, Saksa scoured the nation’s nearly 180 Catholic undergraduate colleges, but he could not locate a single campus ACLU chapter.

In forming the VCLA, Saksa was told by University officials that the group’s constitution must explicitly rule out any activities that conflict with Catholic teachings. While recognizing the University’s right as a private institution to ban the affiliation, Saksa disagreed with the morality of the decision.

“When you deny a proper debate,” he said, “students never get to think about the other side … The only way you know you’re right is if you test it.”

The University encourages academic freedom, and beyond the classroom, the University’s Speaker Policy states, “where consensus is lacking the University invites open and constructive dialogue.”

Vice President of Student Life Rev. John Stack, O.S.A., said, “We walk that line of wanting to stand for certain things, and what we stand for is the truth.”

Stack said while administrators cannot always be sure that groups are arranging activities that align with the mission, the University gives “students and advisers the benefit of the doubt” and that most of the people employed by the University are respectful of the Catholic tradition on campus.

Saksa suggested that the University’s hesitancy may have been a result of alumni outrage after the formation of the ACLU chapter was incorrectly reported in an article in the Villanovan in February 2004.

Stack said after the article appeared, University President Rev. Edmund Dobbin, O.S.A., was contacted by members of the community about concerns over the group’s formation. However, he said feedback about campus speakers and activities is common but rarely influential in administrative decisions, unless new information is introduced.