Published January 24, 2008
ST. LOUIS – A Roman Catholic archbishop's call this week for Saint Louis University to discipline its popular basketball coach for publicly supporting abortion rights has put the Jesuit school in a bind.
If the university takes action against Rick Majerus, no stranger to controversy throughout his career, it risks criticism for clamping down on the free exchange of ideas.
If it doesn't, it looks like it's brushing off Archbishop Raymond Burke, who chastised Majerus for airing his views at a Hillary Rodham Clinton rally last weekend.
The university hasn't publicly heeded Burke's call to discipline Majerus, who coached Utah to 10 NCAA tournament appearances and whose hiring last April electrified supporters of the Billikens.
University spokesman Clayton Berry would not say Thursday if the school is considering disciplinary action against Majerus. He has said previously that Majerus was speaking at the rally as an individual, not as a representative of the school.
University athletics spokesman Chuck Young said Majerus refused to comment Thursday to The Associated Press.
Majerus took a typically defiant stand in an interview published Thursday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"These beliefs are ingrained in me," Majerus told the paper. "And my First Amendment right to free speech supersedes anything that the archbishop would order me to do. My dad fought on Okinawa in World War II. My uncle died in World War II. I had classmates die in Vietnam. And it was to preserve our way of life, so people like me could have an opinion."
The dispute between the archbishop and the coach puts students and faculty in the midst of a common clash pitting Catholic doctrine against intellectual freedom. The private university is independent of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and therefore beyond the bishop's purview, but is tied to it culturally as a Catholic institution.
"I'm a Catholic, and I support the church's stance. As an American, I also support people's free speech," said Andrew Clifton, the Student Government Association president.
Berry said Burke doesn't have any direct control over the university, which is operated by priests in the Jesuit order, also known as the Society of Jesus. He said ultimate authority lies with the school's Board of Trustees, several of whom did not return messages seeking comment.
A spokeswoman at the archdiocese said Burke was not available to comment.
Burke has spoken out before against Catholics or Catholic institutions that stray from church doctrine. During the 2004 election, he said he would not administer Holy Communion to presidential candidate John Kerry, a Catholic, because he supported abortion rights.
Last year, Burke dropped his seat on the board of a charity that let singer Sheryl Crow perform at a benefit concert. Crow supports abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research.
On Tuesday, Burke said he would ask Saint Louis University officials to take "appropriate action" against Majerus after the coach gave a TV interview at the Clinton rally during which he said he was Catholic and pro-choice.
"I'm concerned that a leader at a Catholic university made these comments. It can lead Catholics astray," Burke said Tuesday. "I just believe that it's of the essence for people to understand as a Catholic you just cannot hold these beliefs."
Majerus told the Post-Dispatch he "respectfully" disagreed.
"I do not speak for the university or the Catholic Church. These are my personal views. And I'm not letting him change my mind," the coach said. "I think religion should be inclusive. I would hope that all people would feel welcome inside a church, and that the church would serve to bring people together, even if they happen to disagree on certain things."
The dispute has been the buzz on campus, Clifton said.
"A lot of students like Coach Majerus. He's been a great coach. We all want to see him do well," Clifton said. "I would hope he's not punished in any way."
Sarah Hale, the opinion page editor of the school newspaper, The University News, said a handful of letters to the editor appear to show a split in the student body.
"Some are backing the decision of the archbishop, some are backing Majerus. They're really all over the board," she said.