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Boston College set to adopt language that welcomes gays

Boston College administrators have agreed to change the school's statement of nondiscrimination to make it more welcoming to gay students and employees, but the revision stops short of prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The policy changes were agreed on after weeks of meetings between BC's general counsel, two high-ranking student affairs officials, and student leaders. Jack Dunn, a spokesman for the Catholic university, said the compromise was drafted last week and is expected to become policy after further internal review.

Three weeks ago, a campus rally in support of gay rights drew 1,000 people. Student activists have lobbied for changes in the nondiscrimination policy for more than three years, since BC appeared on a list of gay-unfriendly colleges published by the Princeton Review. The university's nondiscrimination statement pledges compliance with laws against discrimination based on race, religion, age, sex, and other protected criteria, but because Massachusetts law includes an exemption for religious institutions with moral objections to homosexuality, the policy doesn't grant the same blanket protection to sexual orientation.

In new language to be added to the statement, BC ''commits itself to maintaining a welcoming environment for all people and extends its welcome in particular to those who may be vulnerable to discrimination on the basis of their race . . . religion, color, age . . . or sexual orientation."

But the revised policy also makes clear that BC will comply with antidiscrimination laws ''while reserving its lawful rights where appropriate to take actions designed to promote the Jesuit, Catholic principles that sustain its mission and heritage."

University officials have said the exemption allows them to withhold funding or recognition from student groups with goals at odds with Catholic principles, without being vulnerable to lawsuits.

Student leaders said in a joint statement that the new policy is ''vastly improved" and ''noticeably more welcoming and affirming to all communities," but not perfect.

''We are disappointed that the revised clause continues to separate sexual orientation from other groups . . . when the welcoming address . . . so accurately and vividly represents the culture of our University," student government president Grace Simmons and other student leaders wrote. ''The new statement is a milestone, but not an end."

A spokeswoman for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C., said 21 of the nation's 28 Jesuit campuses include the words sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policies. She could not say how many schools offer full protection. The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, which chose to forgo the state's religious exemption, does include sexual preference alongside age, race, and gender.

Dunn acknowledged that some students think the policy still needs work, but he said campus reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. ''Students respect the fact that as a Jesuit university, we have an obligation to uphold our religious convictions," he said.

The Rev. John W. Howard, a BC alumnus and a longtime faculty member, said many students feel they have a long way to go until the policy is truly fair. Many of the most vocal students seem to be motivated by Jesuit teachings about the duty to fight injustice, he said.

''I heard one university official say, this is the price we pay for having bright kids coming to BC," said Howard. ''Like it or not, many of them seem to have gotten the [Jesuit] message. I'm not the only one who admires them."

Student activists scored a victory in 2003, when the university's president, the Rev. William Leahy, agreed to grant official recognition to a gay-straight student alliance on campus.

''The hard work of the movement, including the rally and discussions, have definitely had an impact on the culture at BC, and students are committed to continue the work," said Michael Yaksich, director of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues for BC's student government.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

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