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Purdue RFRA Response Differs From Other Colleges

More than half a dozen university presidents have penned open letters opposing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA.

“I had been watching the law develop and its repercussions over a couple days and I felt personally very strong about it," says DePauw University President Brian Casey. Like most, Casey's letter is personal – addressed as much from the administrator as from the university.

“And I thought this was a moment that I wanted to speak as the president and speak as a person who cared passionately about what was happening in our state. This was a very emotional moment for me. It was a moment for me to say ‘I need to speak out as an individual and as a person who runs a university.’ So it felt pretty natural to me,” Casey says.

At Indiana University, there were meetings among high-level administrators about how to address the controversy. In the end, says IU spokesman Mark Land, President Michael McRobbie decided he also needed to weigh in.

“President McRobbie felt strongly that if we were going to talk on an issue of this importance to our community, he should be the one doing it,” Land says.

Casey and McRobbie joined the leaders of Valparaiso, Hanover, Butler and Ball State Universities in the letter writing campaign. And to a person, each college president either affixed their own name to their letter, spoke in the first person about their beliefs, or both.

Hanover College President Sue DeWine, who e-mailed Tuesday to say she also thought it was important to put her name on her letter, wrote, in part, “I cannot know the motivations of the groups who supported, the legislators who passed, and the governor who recently signed into Indiana law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But, I can point to consequences that are an affront to everything that Hanover College stands for as an institution of higher education.

Butler University President James Danko said: “It strikes me as ill-conceived legislation at best, and I fear that some of those who advanced it have allowed their personal or political agendas to supersede the best interests of the State of Indiana and its people.”

But when, on Monday, a letter came from Purdue University, it sounded very different. The note reaffirmed the school’s non-discrimination policy, and only mentioned the law in its title. There was no mention of lawmakers or of perceptions of the state the legislation may have wrought. And it was signed “Office of the President, Purdue University.”

Repeated requests for comment from President Mitch Daniels Monday and Tuesday were declined.

However, following those requests, the text of the letter was changed Tuesday. No longer does its title refer to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but instead to the university’s non-discrimination policy. And in an e-mail to WBAA, an administrator in the president’s office noted Daniels had asked that his name be attached to the signature line some 24 hours after the letter was released. The administrator says the president “continues to be unsure why there is confusion” and notes the letter was meant to be “an institutional affirmation and not just a personal one.”

But there is a group at Purdue that’s made its feelings about the law public – the faculty Senate.

“As for myself, I tend to sign my name to everything I vote to,” says Senate President Patty Hart, who adds she’s received what she calls a “tidal wave” of e-mails opposing RFRA, as well as a few she describes as thoughtful defenses of the law.

But she notes 57 senators have penned a resolution opposing the state law, which would be enough to pass such a measure in the body she oversees.

"At Purdue, we’ve seen that the Senate is very interested in this, as are the many, many faculty and staff people who have contacted me," Hart says. "So although we don’t have a statement from the President regarding RFRA, there is going to be a very rigorous discussion of it.”

Purdue officials have, in recent days, pointed to what the letter from the president’s office calls “a longstanding Board of Trustees policy” that they say “precludes Purdue taking institutional positions on matters such as the current controversy.”

But DePauw President Brian Casey says it became clear to him someone had to stand up, even if he holds a similar belief that university presidents should be careful about commenting on social issues or state law.

“Even if I try just to be Brian Casey, I’m never just Brian Casey," he says. "I’m Brian Casey who’s the president and therefore the representative of the University. So I know that what I say will be part of the institution’s long-term postures. And so you do have to be careful. The test I always apply is: is this a situation that I think is presenting harm to the institution which I must address? And I thought that this clearly had come over that hurdle.”

Some responses from universities were outspoken. Others curiously less so. But in the end, they may all be having an impact, Governor Mike Pence Monday pushed lawmakers to have a fix for the perceived discrimination on his desk by the end of the week.