Education

Duke won’t recognize Young Life as a student organization because of its LGBTQ policy

Duke University’s student government has declined to recognize a national Christian organization as an official student group because of its stance on LGBTQ issues.

The student senate unanimously voted against Young Life last week, the Duke Chronicle reported.

Young Life, with local chapters in Durham and Chapel Hill, aims to introduce teens to Christianity and help them grow in their faith. The group has a rule that bans LGBTQ individuals from leadership positions, according to the student newspaper. The Duke student senate said that violates the Student Organization Finance Committee’s rule that every Duke student group must include a nondiscrimination statement in its constitution.

A Young Life sexual misconduct policy says it doesn’t exclude people “who practice a homosexual lifestyle from being recipients of ministry of God’s grace,” however, “such persons are not to serve as staff or volunteers in the mission and work of Young Life,” the Chronicle reported.

“They don’t have a non-discrimination clause in their constitution; they have a discrimination clause,” student senator Jackson Kennedy said at an earlier student government meeting where the issue was tabled.

The student government’s rules require that each student organization “affirms the spirit and letter of the University’s non-discrimination statement.” That statement from the Office for Institutional Equity says Duke prohibits “discrimination based on gender identity, sexual orientation and gender expression.”

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Students walk to and from class past Rubenstein Library through the Academic Quad on a beautiful Spring morning. Jared Lazarus Duke Office of News & Communications

Duke students already are volunteering with Young Life in Durham and Chapel Hill, but the group wanted to become a recognized organization on campus to recruit more students and get support from student government. Duke is a non-sectarian university with historic ties to the United Methodist Church.

At the meeting, junior Tommy Hessel asked the Duke Young Life chapter to amend its rules to comply with Duke’s nondiscrimination policy, according to the Duke Chronicle. In response, Jeff Bennett, a master’s candidate at the Duke Divinity School and member of Young Life, said the Duke chapter can’t break national policies.

So, the student senate turned down the request.

Young Life at other NC campuses

At UNC-Chapel Hill, the Young Life-affiliated group College Life is a recognized student organization.

The group’s rules, adopted in 2013, say, “Young Life does not have a specific set of rules. The rules vary depending on the area. In the Chapel Hill/Durham area leaders just have to be committed to leading.”

Young Life makes it clear chapters across the country don’t turn away middle and high school students who are LGBTQ.

“Young Life is passionate about building relationships with people of all backgrounds, and participation in our programs is open to everyone regardless of ability, belief, race, sexuality or other factors,” Young Life spokesman Terry Swensen said.

Swensen told the News & Observer that Young Life isn’t seeing a trend of college campuses rejecting groups. But, it’s not the first time the issue has come up in the area.

In June, religious student organizations at Elon University were allowed to change to community ministries, Elon News Network reported. That meant trading student government funding to maintain or enforce their own policies, even if it goes against university policy.

Elon has a chapter of the group called Young Life College that is affiliated with Young Life in Alamance County. Its bylaws, revised in May 2019 and published on the university’s website, do not mention the word homosexuality, but say leaders are expected to refrain from any sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage.

“Young Life welcomes everyone to our programs, meetings, and events,” the bylaws read. They continue: “That is the case not just on the Elon campus but everywhere we have a presence. You can be part of Young Life regardless of belief, identity or background.

“At the same time, we ask those who would be in a leadership role with Young Life to accept and support certain beliefs and standards of behavior. These standards include expectations in the area of sexuality, which we view as integral to individual health and thriving.”

On the subject of sexuality, the Elon bylaws say, “We believe that God created us as sexual beings with an inherent desire for relational intimacy. We also recognize the importance of the apostle Paul’s teaching that our bodies are sacred vessels and are to be lived in and cared for accordingly.

“As with all gifts of life, we desire to experience our sexuality as an expression of gratitude to God, love for others, personal integrity and alignment with scriptural teaching. We therefore ask those seeking leadership roles with Young Life to refrain from sexually intimate relationships outside of a heterosexual marriage covenant.

“We articulate these standards with humility, understanding some will not agree, and also with a high view of what it means to be a leader representing our organization.”

Swensen said Young Life wants to understand and comply with individual campus guidelines. Duke’s petition was unique, Swensen said, because it sought recognition for an existing group, not to establish a new program at Duke.

“We understand the student senate’s decision and appreciate their consideration,” Swensen said. “If the Duke students involved with Young Life decide to re-apply, we will work with them to create an application that complies with the university’s expectations.”

Related stories from Durham Herald Sun

Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.
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