July 14, 2008

Student in Florida Cracker Case Files Hazing Charge Against Campus Catholic Ministries

There’s been an interesting, and I dare say amusing, development in the Florida Magic Cracker Kidnapping case. Webster Cook, the more-powerful-than-Jesus University of Central Florida student senator who absconded with a sanctified communion wafer, has filed a charge against Catholic Campus Ministries. It seems that UCF has a policy that prohibits hazing, part of which it defines as "the forced consumption of any food." Because CCM is a university-chartered student organization and holds services on university property, it is bound by those rules.

While this may seem far fetched at first blush, Cook has a point. Unless some special exemption has been made for religious organizations in the SGA rules, CCM has the same obligation as any other student organization to allow attendees at functions held on school property the free will not to eat or drink anything that they provide. In other words, the Eucharist has the same legal standing as pizza and soda. Just as a fraternity or secular organization would not be allowed to compel a student to eat pizza until he vomited, a religious organization cannot force that student to consume a cracker. Whether other members of that organization believe that said cracker is the body of Christ or has other magical powers is immaterial.

WFTV of Orlando, Florida has the story:

UCF Catholics Face Hazing Charges For Protecting 'Body Of Christ'

A Catholic student group is facing hazing charges after a worshiper allegedly used force while trying to rescue a communion wafer from a student leader smuggling it out of Mass...

Cook said his hazing complaint cited a UCF anti-hazing policy banning the "forced consumption of any food," in which the "initiation or admission into or affiliation with a University of Central Florida organization may be directly or indirectly conditioned."

The rule presumably was intended to prevent fraternities from force-feeding pledges disgusting food. But Cook said the rule is clear, and applies to all UCF clubs, including the Catholic Campus Ministries religious group. He insists the group is guilty, because members ordered him to consume the Eucharist to remain at Mass...

SGA Officer Anthony Furbush filed an impeachment affidavit against Cook claiming Cook violated SGA ethics when he announced he was an SGA official during Mass, and cited that reason, along with the fact Mass was held in a public campus hall, as why he didn't have to leave when asked.

Cook denied that allegation. Hearings on the impeachment charge could begin Wednesday. If convicted, Cook would be stripped of his SGA position.

SGA officials at UCF are responsible for allocating and overseeing a more than $13 million annual budget, which comes from student fees. The spots are coveted by students, with some candidates spending $10,000 in private funds to win elections for the highest positions in SGA...

Paul Zachary Myers, an athiest [sic] college professor at the University of Minnesota Morris who saw our story has since pledged to desecrate the Eucharist and post photographic evidence on the Internet in protest of Cook's treatment.

That pledge attracted condemnation from the Catholic League, a Catholic civil rights group whose leader, Bill Donohue, suggested that UCF President John Hitt should expel Cook from school, even after he returned the Eucharist.

Cook's friend, who asked we shield his identity out of fear, hopes the controversy will end soon...
Trying to force an interpretation of the anti-hazing rule that would apply only to “disgusting things” is fundamentally dishonest and opens the prohibition to some very odd interpretations. For instance, who decides what is disgusting? One can imagine a scenario in which a group took perfectly ordinary chicken, cook it thoroughly, and dyed it an unappetizing shade of green. Is that disgusting? There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s only chicken with food coloring. What a student organization still be prohibited from forcing a pledge to eat it under the interpreted rule? Moreover, could the same club demand that a new initiate consume excessive amounts of something that wasn’t considered repulsive by ordinary people. I don’t know of many individuals who would consider grapes disgusting, but one might be sickened or even injured by cramming five pounds of grapes down the one’s throat. The real issue here is not the quality of the food consumed but the fact that the initiate could be compelled to consume anything at all.

Cook cannot be said to have done anything disruptive; he wasn’t the one who made a scene during the service. The fact that he was surreptitious in his actions demonstrates that he didn’t stand up, wave the wafer around and shout "I got it! I got it!" The disruption was perpetrated by the individual who attempted to physically restrain him. Therefore, it is that individual who should be brought up on university charges if this whole situation is about disruptive behavior. If, on the other hand, Cook is being charged with being disrespectful, that opens up the question of whether disrespect directed at a religious organization is being treated differently than that directed at a secular organization at UCF. As this is a public university funded largely by tax dollars, to do so would be violating the law. Would a student wearing a "club the baby seals" T-shirt be brought up on the same charges for attending an on-campus Greenpeace meeting? Respect is something that can only be given by consent; it cannot be enforced and to attempt to do not almost always impinges on free speech. A university should not be allowed to decide what any individual should or should not respect.

Finally, we might ask whether a "sanctified" cracker can be given a different standing then an unsanctified cracker by the university administration. If not, then any student removing a Ritz from a reception could be faced with the end of his or her academic career under the university’s stringent “zero tolerance for cracker thieves” policy. If the university decides that it can give special status to a cracker that happens to be part of a religious ritual, then it is giving special privileges to an organization based on particular religious belief— certainly something not allowed when that organization is receiving funding from student fees at a public university.

On the other hand, the person who attempted to prevent Cook from leaving the premises when he so desired has certainly broken the law. The action could certainly be considered assault and perhaps false imprisonment as well. Cook was not posing a threat to any person, nor was he stealing someone else’s property. The cracker was given to him; it was his property. If UCF isn’t already giving special status to a religious organization, it should be more concerned with the violation of a real law than it is with getting involved with vague issues of respect and transubstantiation. Certainly, assault has been proven many times in open court. I don’t think the same can be said of transubstantiation.

I find it telling that Cook’s friend is afraid to reveal his identity. Cook has already been the subject of physical harassment and clearly his friend is worried about his own safety. It bears pointing out that contrary to the assertions I have seen made by Catholics angered over this situation that they are unlike Muslims who rioted in several countries when a Danish newspaper published a derogatory cartoon of Mohammad that, in fact, Christians have taken violent action when they have felt that the object of their belief has been slighted. In India, Christians infuriated by the printing in a newspaper of a cartoon depicting Christ holding a beer smashed that paper’s office only hours ago. It might be true that Americans are not as likely to become violent over religious differences, but to assert that this has anything to do with religion is nonsense. I would assume that Indian Christians are still considered to be members of the same religion as American Christians and that the Catholics of the subcontinent belong to the same church as the Catholics of Florida.

As far as PZ Myers is concerned, I wonder if he would consider accompanying me when I travel to Florida for field work this September. I’m sure his newly-acquired celebrity in that state would net us all sorts of benefits. The vitriol expressed by Floridian fundamentalists would provide motivation against the temptation to leave the field early and seek air conditioning. At least as far as WFTV sees him, he's the "athiest."

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