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BILLINGS, Mont. (ChurchMilitant.com) - A Montana Christian College refused to allow the student group Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) to display crosses in honor of the innocent victims of abortion.
Rocky Mountain College in Billings, traditionally affiliated with United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Church of Christ, believes the display would be too "divisive" and could offend other students on campus.
"I didn't think it was really going to be a problem at all," said Emily Kokot, YAF treasurer and secretary for the college.
School administrators "for the last couple of years" have allowed the installation of "a 9/11 memorial where we put flags up on the ground on the campus outside." Kokot said.
In that public on-campus display flags were placed in the ground, each representing a number of Americans who died as a result of 9/11 attacks. Similarly, the proposed pro-life display would have placed crosses in the ground, each symbolizing a number of preborn Americans killed in abortion since Roe v. Wade. There has been no word from the college that directly addresses this apparent inconsistency.
Dean of Student Life Brad Nason told Kokot via email that "we draw the line at public displays of divisive topics."
Pressed as to why the public display was not allowed on campus, Nason responded that by allowing public displays, "we have effectively eliminated every student's ability to choose to engage or not engage with that issue." He added that such displays could also imply the endorsement of the college.
"The pro-life/pro-choice debate is incredibly divisive" and "a public display is confrontational," Nason said, adding that topics like abortion require "open and thoughtful discussion" instead.
But when YAF members proposed an open and thoughtful discussion, Nason rejected "Unborn Lives Matter" posters advertising the meeting.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization that defends those whose rights are denied on campus and educates on their importance, told Rocky Mountain College to rescind the ban on "divisive" displays, including the crosses.
"I think the idea that people can't separate out actions of college students from actions of a college is naive," said Adam Goldstein, program officer in FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program.
"I think we all know that college students engage in activism and no one is confused that institutions are enthusiastic necessarily about every protester who shows up on campus," he said.
FIRE launched a pressure campaign against the college in an auto-generated email to RMC President Robert Wilmouth, which states that graduates "will be ill-prepared for the world after graduation if the school continues to prohibit 'divisive' displays and speech."
The college shows no favoritism, responded Nason, pointing to Wilmouth's denial of an "unnecessarily and inappropriately confrontational" display by a liberal group. It "would have included what most would interpret as liberal messaging, around the topics of immigrant rights, climate change, science, and racism."
The administration has "a responsibility to create a safe, comfortable and respectful environment where students live and learn," Nason concluded.
But no clear explanation was offered as to why small crosses are unsafe, uncomfortable, or disrespectful on a Christian college campus.
Church Militant reached out to YAF as well as the dean of Student Services for additional comment.
YAF co-leader Rayna Laakso responded:
We are challenging this decision because it puts restrictions on how we as a group want to express our views. The school promises free expression in its Student Code of Conduct which states, "Rocky Mountain College is a community of scholars in which the ideals of freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of the individual are sustained." We have been told many times we should have expected this because we chose the most controversial topic to display.
The dean of Student Services did not respond to Church Militant's inquiry.
RMC is not the only self-identified Christian college that has had problems with the pro-life message.
Biola University, a private Christian university located in suburban Los Angeles, has barred Diana Jimenez, a recent nursing graduate, from displaying what they called "graphic" pro-life signage in a location where it would be visible to students, faculty and visitors during finals week.
Backers of YAF's display note that though denying pro-life speakers and topics on campus is not new, the various logically inconsistent excuses that are often employed to justify each new case is.