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Boston, Mass., Jan 16, 2022 / 04:00 am (CNA).
The bishops of Fargo and Bismarck are speaking out against a proposed “gender inclusion” policy that would require everyone at the University of North Dakota — even visitors — to use preferred pronouns and affirm individuals’ chosen gender identities, or face the consequences.
A draft of the policy also obliges the school to provide students with on-campus housing “consistent with their gender identity and expression,” and it applies the same gender identity rules to locker rooms and restrooms.
Located in Grand Forks, the state university has about 13,780 students and some 2,500 employees.
Christopher Dodson, the executive director and general counsel of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, representing the two dioceses, says the proposal as written is unconstitutional.
“We recognize that everyone should be treated with respect and that the university has a role in facilitating a respectful learning environment,” Dodson states in an Oct. 21 letter to Jennifer Rogers, the university’s policy officer.
“However, this proposal goes beyond setting mere rules for administrative tasks. Indeed, it embraces and demands acceptance of a particular ideology about gender and language that infringes upon free speech and religious rights,” Dodson states.
“We are particularly concerned about the proposal’s lack of any exemption for student organizations,” the letter continues.
“Fraternities and sororities are provided a limited exemption, but not student organizations. This means that UND would require student organizations to use preferred pronouns, accept expressed genders, and reject binary understandings of gender even if doing so conflicted with their sincerely held religious beliefs,” Dodson states.
“Students and faculty do not lose their First Amendment rights when they enter the doors of a state university. This is well-established constitutional law,” the letter continues. “The proposed policy by UND amounts to unconstitutionally compelling speech and a particular viewpoint.”
The conference on Jan. 10 sent a second letter outlining its concerns to parents of students in Catholic high schools and, in some cases, other Catholic parishioners with high school students.
The school’s proposal also drew fire from Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski, who said in a Facebook post that it “spits in the face of everything we believe in” and called it a “sad day for my alma mater,” the Star Tribune reported.
In a 45-minute press conference on Jan. 14, University President Andrew Armacost called Dodson’s input “useful.” He said he is taking his time to slowly draft the next revision of the policy because Dodson brought up important constitutional issues that need to be addressed “the proper way.”
But Armacost, a former brigadier general and retired dean at the Air Force Academy, defended the intent of the proposed policy.
“The draft policy is intended to state our support to our LGBTQ members and, in particular, to our transgender and nonbinary members, with that same guarantee of access to education and fair employment without fear of discrimination or harassment,” Armacost said.
Addressing the Catholic conference’s concern about housing arrangements for students, Armacost said students are able to request a roommate change for any reason.
In an interview with CNA, Dodson said he appreciated “clarification on the housing issue,” and said that “future iterations of the proposal, if any, should clearly address this issue.”
“Students should not, however, have to rely on receiving an exemption to the on-campus housing policy or requesting a roommate change to ensure that the student is placed with someone of the same sex,” he added.
Dodson said the conference shares the university’s desire to create a learning environment free of harassment but he called the policy proposal “overbroad.”
Bishop John T. Folda is the leader of the Diocese of Fargo. The Diocese of Bismarck is led by Bishop David D. Kagan.