The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service fraternity, was refused club status by Gonzaga University, due to the stipulation, a part of the group’s national charter, that all members must be Catholic males.
Student Life Vice President Sue Weitz, in a email March 15 to a Knights student representative, explained that a group with exclusive membership requirements could not be approved as a club on campus.
The school’s decision triggered considerable controversy, garnering attention from media outlets like the Cardinal Newman Society, a pro-Catholic education watchdog organization, the Catholic World Report and Fox News.
Since Weitz’s letter has been made public, all inquiries regarding the decision have been redirected from the Student Life office to the Public Relations office. In a statement released by the university April 6, the administration addressed concerns surrounding the formation of a campus Knights of Columbus council and stipulated that President Thayne McCulloh will review the application and come to a decision within 30 to 45 days — during summer break.
A well-established Knights of Columbus branch, which owns a building west of St. Aloysius Church on campus, was founded in 1902 and has members who are typically middle-aged or older. The group is founded in principles of charity and service to the Catholic Church. Branches must be affiliated with a local parish. The group of students who submitted a club application in fall 2012 hope to start a student branch that will be an organization independent from the existing Knights, but with potential for shared projects and communication.
Peter Guthrie, a sophomore seminary student and Grand Knight, or president, of the Knights of Columbus student council, turned in a club packet for review in September. The group has been meeting regularly at Bishop White Seminary all year, and has managed to complete some service projects despite a lack of funding. They have not been affiliated with the university — a detriment to both the organization and the school, according to seminary senior and Knight Edward Duncan.
“We’re all focused on service. That’s what the Knights are really about. It was developed to help Catholic minorities in the U.S., especially widows,” Duncan said. “Now it’s very much involved with vocations to the priesthood. I’m very surprised that the application was rejected because the Knights are such an important group in the church and their work is all service oriented.”
The email from Weitz followed a March 7 meeting regarding the potential club where David Rovick, assistant director of student activities, Kassi Kain, assistant dean of students, and Fr. C. Hightower, director of University Ministry, informed Guthrie of the school’s decision to veto the request. Guthrie had received no word from Student Life regarding the Knights of Columbus until receiving an email regarding the meeting one month ago.
“When we had this meeting, they came out with these two new issues that they never told me before [attending the meeting],” said Guthrie. “They said we’re denying you on the grounds that you won’t have women, [that] you have an age requirement of 18 and [that] you only allow Catholics.”
As the Knights have a Squires program for boys age 17 and under and a sister group, Catholic Daughters, for women only, the first two concerns seemed an easy fix to Guthrie. Despite mentioning these programs to Rovick, Kain and Hightower, the administrators maintained that the club still had a problem with exclusivity.
“The only problem they [had] left with us was that we’re Catholic. They denied us on the grounds that we only allow Catholics to be members,” Guthrie said.
The reasoning behind the fraternity, which was founded in 1882, granting Knight status only to Catholics is based on the traditions and practices of the club. Interested non-Catholic students, however, would be welcome to participate in the club’s service projects and be affiliated with the club in that way, according to Guthrie.
“The purpose of the club being entirely Catholic is [because] we promote Catholic teachings,” said Guthrie. “Our view is in union with the church and with the views of the pope. Our Supreme Knight [the head of the entire organization] meets with the pope. Our beliefs and everything we do stem from the Gospel and a Catholic interpretation. [Knights of Columbus] was formed by Fr. McGivney for Catholic men, basically to support the Catholic community. In that sense, it’s tradition. A lot of what we do and what we believe wouldn’t be popular. People who aren’t Catholic wouldn’t agree with [it] necessarily. I have no control over that rule. That’s [from] Supreme and that’s in our constitution.”
In her March 15 letter, Weitz cited the non-discrimination clause, which appears on page 57 of the most recent (2010-2011) Gonzaga University Club Manual. The statement asserts that GU is an affirmative-action, equal opportunity institution that does not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sex, nationality and a number of other factors.
“No student should ever feel as though they are not welcome to be a part of any organization,” said Gurkeert Bagri, an officer in Gonzaga’s Filipino-American Student Union. “These clubs exist for the purpose of bringing together students who share a common interest and goals. If those interests and goals match up, then I see no reason why any student should not be granted the freedom to join any club or organization, even if there are religious differences.”
There is evidence to suggest that the Knights of Columbus once had official club recognition on campus. They were active at Gonzaga from 1999-2008, at which point the group went defunct due to lack of interest. The group had an account with GSBA during this time, according to Guthrie. The current controversy arose when he attempted to revive the club and was told they would need to reapply for club status, and that paperwork from the 1999 application had been lost.
According to the group’s website, they used to meet on Saturdays in Crosby’s Road to Zanzibar room and had a Gonzaga email address.
The Knights of Columbus council that owns the hall near St. Al’s is disappointed by Gonzaga’s decision.
“The message it sets out is confusing,” said John Loren, a chapter officer. “If you have a Catholic college that will not allow a Catholic group to exist on campus, the message is quite baffling.”
Weitz, in her letter, sought to clarify that this decision was not due to the Catholicity of the club, but because of its exclusiveness.
“I think it is important to note that this was not a decision based [on] the Knights of Columbus’ value or worthiness of recognition, nor is it some kind of litmus test of Gonzaga’s Catholicity. It is a decision about social justice, equity and the desire of the University to create and maintain an environment in which none are excluded.”
However, even if the Knights are denied club status, they will continue to function — independent of the university — possibly by continuing to meet at Bishop White Seminary. They would also have the option to join the preexisting council.
“We’ll accept them in a heartbeat,” said Greg Fong, Grand Knight of the St. Al’s-affiliated Knights council. “They’re our brothers.”