Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Monday, the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) organized a protest of the College outside the entrance to Ben West Parking Lot on North Chester Road around noon. The group of about twenty-six, mostly male Catholics, including a high school student, was protesting Department of Religion Professor Gwynn Kessler’s “Queering the Bible” course that will be offered in the fall of 2018. Kessler is currently on leave and did not respond to requests for comment.
Michael Hill, Director of Public Safety, was present at the scene to ensure that the protesters were civil and did not obstruct the sidewalk.
In a written statement to The Daily Gazette on behalf of the College, the Communications Office emphasized Swarthmore’s commitment to intellectual freedom and diversity of thought.
“We affirm the rights of our faculty to explore new ideas in their teaching and research, and the rights of our students to learn within and beyond the classroom. Members of our on- and off-campus community have the right to engage in peaceful demonstration and free expression as long as those rights do not interfere with the rights of others to work, to teach, and to learn,” they said.
TFP Student Action Director John Ritchie, one of the organizers of the demonstration, said that the College should immediately cancel the course and avoid offering similar courses.
“We think it’s appalling that a college that purportedly supports inclusion and diversity would target the Catholic religion with a new course called ‘Queering the Bible’,” he said. “It’s not so much a personal offense, but a grave offense against God.”
Registrar Martin Warner affirmed the College’s position on the course, and academic freedom in general.
“I am very proud of our curriculum, and that course and our religion courses in particular. My sense is that they have the right to protest and we can and should listen to their statements,” he said. “But ultimately it’s our faculty that decide [sic] what to teach, and I’m very glad of that.”
The course has drawn significant attention from right-wing news outlets since the College’s Department of Religion announced it would be offering the course. The story was first reported by The College Fix, a student-reported publication that brands itself as, “Your daily dose of right-minded news and commentary.” The story was then picked up by a number of other outlets within the right-wing media sphere, including The Washington Times, Breitbart, and Fox News.
When asked about his beliefs on freedom of speech, Ritchie said, “Defamation of God is not free speech … God is sacred and therefore He should be respected.”
TFP, an arm of The Foundation for a Christian Civilization (FCC), claims to be “the world’s largest anticommunist and antisocialist network of Catholic inspiration,” and has over 120,000 members. The group, inspired by the work of Brazilian Catholic activist Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, was founded in 1973 and has fought against its perceived moral degradation of America.
In its early days, the group had connections to the Reagan administration, and today maintains strong ties with conservative activists and organizations. The group was one of the sponsors of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2014, which drew numerous notable figures in Republican politics, including Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, President Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre.
While most organizations that actively participate in politics are registered as 501(c)(4) nonprofits, TFP is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(3), meaning the group is fully tax-exempt and donations are tax-deductible.
Though IRS regulations are very restrictive when it comes to political campaigning and lobbying by 501(c)(3) organizations, TFP has signed onto statements opposing housing finance reform legislation, climate change legislation, and State Department authorization legislation, and has organized rallies against same-sex marriage legislation in Maine.
It’s unclear if the protesters will be back, but Ritchie insists the demonstrations are here to stay.
“We’re not going to stop protesting until [the course] is cancelled,” he said.
President Valerie Smith could not be reached for comment, as she was away on college business.