A Catholic University official on Wednesday abruptly withdrew permission for the school’s College Democrats to show the 2008 movie “Milk,” which is about the life of gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk, on the same day the film was scheduled to be screened at a campus auditorium.
According to a statement released by the university on Thursday, the College Democrats group violated a university policy by linking the screening in a promotional flier to LGBT Awareness Month, which traditionally has been observed by local and national LGBT activists in October.
The statement, issued by Catholic University spokesperson Victor Nakas, said the university is open to allowing the College Democrats to reschedule the film screening along with a planned lecture by John White, a C.U. political science professor, and Kevin Walling, a gay C.U. graduate who was recently elected chair of the Montgomery County, Md., Democratic Party.
“In late September, the College Democrats began to advertise the event as a kickoff to LGBT Awareness Month,” the university statement says. “When the request for approval had first been submitted by the College Democrats to the Office of Campus Activities there had been no indications that the program would be a kickoff to LGBT Awareness Month,” it says.
The statement says that it wasn’t until Sept. 30, one day before the event billed as “Milk and Cookies” was scheduled to take place that university officials learned about the fliers they say linked the event to LGBT Awareness Month.
“For University administrators it called into question whether the event had changed in nature from one of education to one of advocacy,” says the statement, which would put the event at odds with church teachings.
Walling joined members of the College Democrats and other C.U. students in criticizing university officials for putting a stop to the film screening. He and at least one College Democrats spokesperson said university officials misinterpreted the flier.
“This in my book is kind of ridiculous,” Walling, a former official with the LGBT advocacy group Equality Maryland, told the Washington Blade. “It wasn’t a rally or anything like that or let’s go take buses and fight for marriage equality,” he said. “It was let’s just have a conversation about what it means to be LGBT and Catholic.”
A spokesperson for the College Democrats told the Washington Post that the group would take steps to reschedule the film showing and the talks by Walling and White for a future date.
The university’s decision to cancel the showing of “Milk” on Wednesday came two days after a lawyer representing C.U. testified before a D.C. City Council hearing in opposition to a bill to amend the city’s Human Rights Act to repeal a provision exempting religious colleges from being bound by the act’s sexual orientation provision.
The Human Rights Amendment Act of 2014 calls for eliminating a religious exemption that Congress added to the D.C. Human Rights Act in 1989 over the strong objections of the mayor and City Council.
The exemption, among other things, allows religious educational institutions, including universities, “to deny, restrict, abridge, or condition the use of any fund, service, facility, or benefit; or the granting of any endorsement, approval, or recognition, to any person or persons that are organized for, or engaged in, promoting, encouraging, or condoning any homosexual act, lifestyle, orientation, or belief.”
Lawrence J. Morris, general counsel for the Catholic University of America, told the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety on Sept. 29 that repealing the religious exemption provision could require the college to take actions that violate Catholic Church teachings.
“We believe repeal of Section 2-1401.03 (b) of the Human Rights Act would take away our freedom, as a religious institution, to educate our students as we choose, in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church,” Morris said. “The Constitution guarantees us this right, and prudence counsels your continuing to honor it.”
LGBT activists and the director of the city’s Office of Human Rights, Monica Palacio, have said repealing the exemption would not force a religious institution like Catholic University to directly fund or endorse an LGBT campus group. Instead, the university would be required to provide such a group the “same non-monetary, tangible benefits as it does to other similarly situated clubs” such as meeting space, a campus mail box, and the ability to publicize its meeting on school bulletin boards.
The Council is expected to pass the legislation later this year or early next year after which it must clear a 30 legislative day review by Congress.
In his testimony before the D.C. Council committee, Morris said that Catholic University has adopted in recent years a pledge for its students, faculty and staff calling for a “culture of light and love” and the promise to “reject and witness against” mistreatment based on factors such as “race, creed, and sexual orientation.”