Atlas Kulish, Section Editor
The Senator of Cultural Diversity is proposing the Associated Students of Saint Martin’s University (ASSMU) add a new clause to its bylaws that prohibits religious and political clubs on campus.
Gomes floated the idea in the aftermath of a brief and intense exchange with members of Saints for Life, a student-led pro-life club. She also requested ASSMU reconsider the legitimacy of the club due to its political nature.
In a memo obtained from an ASSMU Senator, Gomes said, “Saints for Life had outside guests in the cafe with anti-abortion rhetoric, referencing Wade vs Roe. I think that the line between religion and politics have not been drawn thick enough. This is a political club, pushing political ideas. … Clearly, ASSMU has agreed to not allow political clubs on campus. Saints for Life is one. It’s not ‘Catholic Saints’ or ‘Spiritual Saints’ the political statement is in its very name.”
In an interview with Belltower staff, Gomes said her proposal to disband Saints for Life would serve to prevent conflict between various religious and political groups on campus. When asked if her proposal was a form of censorship, the senator replied, “If the purpose of a club is to challenge the beliefs of others, then the entire idea of the club is to promote conflict.”
In mid February 2020, Saints for Life hosted a tabling event at Saint Gertrude’s Cafe. The event was sanctioned by Campus Life, meaning that the club was approved to occupy space at the front of the cafe to distribute informational materials and engage with passersby.
Gomes was taken aback when greeted by the pro-life display staffed by club members and off-campus advocates espousing their opinions. She immediately proceeded to question club members about how they had funded the event. The club members defended their presence. The interaction, though lasting just a few minutes, became a bit heated.
In addition to Saints for Life members, there were some representatives of the Bellingham group Students for Life America at the tabling event. During the interaction with Gomes, Naomi Gilmore, Secretary of Saints for Life, who was present at the event, said that the senator indicated the group was harassing students of color. In spite of the contentious nature of the Gomes’s claim, Gilmore said, “[Gomes] was civil – more or less.”
Gomes did not dispute the basic facts of the exchange and said her only concern about the event’s funding was that it was not provided by ASSMU, because she perceived it to be political. She admitted she did articulate her distaste for the tabling event, but promptly regained her composure, and resumed a more professional tone for her position as Senator of Cultural Diversity. She said she walked away once her question about funding was answered.
The senator, who fellow students describe as passionate about maintaining a just environment on campus, admitted that the Saints For Life stance “… doesn’t align with my beliefs at all. … However, they have every right to exist, and be there, and voice their opinions.”
Though this comment seems to be in conflict with the memo she presented to other members of ASSMU, Gomes shared her understanding of the situation: “The difference between invasion and invitation is very important in these types of discussion.”
She proceeded to elaborate on the difference using her interaction with Saints for Life as an example, explaining how the club’s display and use of off-campus advocates made her feel they were really pushing their ideology onto her.
According to Gomes the Saints for Life club’s behavior on this occasion is an example of invasion. Whereas with invitation, the club would involve individuals responding to the display by approaching the other group to learn about their ideas.
The Saints for Life representatives do not believe they used the event in an invasive manner, but rather that they were merely being active with their participation in the community. Members of the group said they felt their presence was being attacked by an ASSMU senator who they believed was supposed to “advocate for minority … groups.”
Though the senator inquired about the club’s funding to ensure that none of it had been obtained from ASSMU, the current bylaws surrounding the way that funds can be spent by clubs does not prohibit money from being used to produce events that promote political beliefs. There are around 30 clubs on campus, covering interests from Dungeons and Dragons to Engineering. Presently there are no clubs that identify as politically affiliated, and ASSMU bylaws do not prohibit the existence of such clubs, so long as they don’t engage in discrimination, and funds are not directed towards the support of political groups off campus. There is nothing in the ASSMU bylaws that prohibits the political affiliation of clubs or organizations on campus being funded by the Senate. The only restrictions that can be placed on club spending comes from both the ASSMU Finance Code and the ASSMU Club Handbook.
According to the Acceptable Expenditures policy, section four of the ASSMU Club Handbook; and ASSMU Finance Code, section 9.06, a., iii: “No funds shall be granted to financially support a political party off campus. This does not prohibit the support of politically based student clubs or organizations formally recognized by ASSMU. Nor does it prohibit admission to political events.”
Under the current language of the Finance Code and Club Handbook, there is no reason that the Saints for Life club should not be able to freely spend its funding to promote its mission, so long as it does not reach out to groups outside of the campus that identify as political entities. Even if the Students for Life America group is considered to be politically affiliated by ASSMU, the current language surrounding the acceptable use policy is vague.
The definition of “funds granted to financially support … political [parties] off campus” is obscure at best, and can be interpreted in a number of ways, including that violations of the code occur exclusively when financial support is contributed to a recognized political party with the intent to directly further that party’s political effectiveness.
Should Gomes’ idea to restructure the nature of clubs at Saint Martin’s gain traction, students would need to carefully assess whether their group’s existence could be considered challenging to others because of a new precedent to revoke the existence of clubs that are seen as “political.”
If the purpose of higher education is to expand the minds of students and challenge perceptions that they might hold in favor of new and better ideas, one must ask themselves why disagreement should be discouraged at Saint Martin’s.
Though having one’s beliefs challenged can certainly be uncomfortable, the process of education and learning is, by its very nature, uncomfortable. Growing pains hurt, and the unknown is frightening; yet beyond that immediate sense of unpleasantness is knowledge and enlightenment.
If Saint Martin’s culture becomes one of avoidance, there will be very little chance for students to grow, and the academic prowess of the university will most certainly be stunted as pupils cease to ask “Why?” and instead respond with the milquetoast acceptance of “Whatever.”