Working at a college myself, I recognize that some of the issue has nothing to do with Mormons but was a way to express displeasure with the College President who happens to be LDS. Nevertheless, the comments as represented in the press, certainly pose some troubling questions. Is it a violation of state law to send recruiting material to students if those students belong to a religious organization? Did some faculty and students use this opportunity to vent their anti-Mormon feelings? Does this now create a hostile educational environment for LDS students at Northwest College? Is Northwest College showing intolerance toward the LDS?
Here is a letter that I sent to the college:
In reading the press accounts about the Mormon outreach letter, we are very concerned that Mormon (LDS) students are hearing they are not welcome at Northwest College. We are also concerned that, because of political repercussions, existing LDS students are going to be subject to a hostile educational environment.
Reaching out to various student groups is not new to colleges. The University of Michigan Law School recently sent out a letter to potential LDS students identifying LDS programs that would support their university experience. Students from differing backgrounds have concerns and questions about college life. I would think the college would be grateful to have a spokesperson who was able to personally reach out to this one group. I would also hope there are those on campus who can reach out to other groups who might have different cultural and religious sensitivities.
Contrary to some of the comments in the press, it is legal to talk with groups of people about what to expect when attending college, even if they belong to a church or faith group. Statements implying otherwise come across as being hurtful and discriminatory.
We at the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research hope that as you formulate future plans the administration and faculty will reach out to students of the LDS faith to make them once again feel welcome at the college. To do otherwise at this point makes it appear that the recent outrage was nothing more than an expression of anti-Mormon bigotry.
I did get one response expressing that the discussion had nothing to do with Mormons but was rather a question of separation of church and state issue. This was my (slightly edited here) response.
I work at a public college and I understand how feelings get stirred up about actions of the president. From what I read, this seemed to be a way to express displeasure of your president. I understand that and don’t want to defend him personally.
I read how some of your faculty painted this as a separation of church and state issue. However, the faculty and staff need to understand that they are treading on sensitive ground without legal support. Nothing that I read the college president did violated any separation of church and state issues. It is quite legal for a public institution to talk to members of religious groups, and even send them letters so long as you aren’t endorsing those groups. To say otherwise may be considered discriminatory.
At my college, we recently brought in some Islamic students. We provided a prayer room and modified the toilets in their dorm room. That is a religious accommodation and is legal.
The University of Michigan Law School sent out a recruiting letter to Mormon students this year telling what an LDS member could expect at their college, where to find the church and the LDS Institute of Religion. That was appropriate and legal and apparently the same as what your college did.
If your college president had been asked to speak to a group of prospective students and their parents about coming to your college, would that be legal? If that talk was taking place in a religious building such as a church or synagogue, but was still only about the benefits of attending your college, would that still be legal? If a Jewish student at that religious building then asked if there were synagogues nearby where he or she might worship when attending your school, would it be legal to answer? If the school gave that group of students a piece of paper with the synagogue’s address and contact information, would that be legal? Of course it would. There is no endorsement of the group. There is only information and accommodation.
Now, how would it look if your president refused to speak to those students because they were practicing Jews, or practicing Muslims? Do you think that might make your college look bad? Do you think the press might even be interested? This situation is no different. Mormon students have things in their culture that may be concerns while attending Northwest College. Giving information to them to alleviate those concerns is perfectly appropriate and legal. Claiming that you can’t do so is insensitive to that group. You are simply trying to let the students know that attending your college is a viable option without barriers.
I know you don’t want to get into a debate, but I wanted you to know why we were concerned.
Additionally, any time a group is singled out, thoughtless comments are made that can be hurtful and lead to a hostile educational environment where the students don’t feel comfortable with the faculty and fellow students.
I look forward to Northwest College tackling this issue head on and continue to send recruiting and information letters out to various groups, including religious ones. But, I also think something needs to be done to let the Mormon students know they are still welcome on your campus.
I would appreciate your thoughts on this incident in Wyoming.