Leiden christian student association accused of discriminating against gay board applicants

TLDR;

Christian student association NSL (Navigators Studentenvereniging Leiden) has been accused of discriminating against board of director applicants based on sexual orientation. The allegations are based on a document entitled ‘course directive on homosexuality’, originating from NSL’s parent company ‘The Navigators’. While the NSL denies discriminating against applicants on this basis the accusations have caused significant uproar within the university. The issue has also caught the attention of Leiden’s city council and may lead Dutch minister van Engelshoven to respond as a result of official questions posed to her in response to the events. Further developments are still expected.    

INTRODUCTION

Members of the Christian student association ‘Navigators Studentenvereniging Leiden’ (NSL), who do not fit within the religious constraints around sexual orientation, can expect unique demands to become a board member. This has been stipulated in a document entitled ‘Koersbepaling Homosexualitiet’ (or, ‘course directive homosexuality’) originating from the Dutch branch of the international Christian ministry, ‘The Navigators’. 

Even for those born and raised in the Netherlands, the immense variety of student organisations and their respective reputations can quickly become overwhelming. For newcomers then it may come as a surprise that a country, known in general for its broadly liberal society, still counts among its ranks organisations employing practices such as those mentioned above. 

This article attempts to outline the scope of organisations upholding Christian traditions and beliefs among students in the Netherlands, how this has manifested itself in Leiden specifically, and how it can be that discrimination of this sort is still present here.

HISTORY OF ‘THE NAVIGATORS’ — ABROAD AND IN THE NETHERLANDS

To begin, who or what are The Navigators? Founded in Colorado in 1933, The Navigators are what is known as a ‘para-church organization’. Simply put, they work alongside the Church and provide various social and evangelical services, often on an international scale. This scale, for The Navigators, is immense. The Navigators are purported to extend their services to no less than 103 countries. In their own words their goal is, “To share the gospel and to disciple all people in all places…” They certainly can’t be said to lack ambition.         

The founder, Dawson Trotman, began his service amongst the American marines. The work of The Navigators amongst the military is perhaps still what they are best known for, though they describe their current focus to be on the implementation of “Life-to-life relationships”, all rights reserved. Mr.Trotman first visited the Netherlands in 1948 to speak at a conference, and 10 years later The Navigators had become an official foundation here. The organization began its work among students in 1964, but it wasn’t until the ‘80s that they moved towards founding a student organization, beginning in Rotterdam. 

This initiative quickly caught on as the branch in Rotterdam grew and new organizations were founded in various university cities across the country. This expansion falls under the directive of the Navigators Studentenverenigingen (NSV), which is nothing more than the branch of the Dutch Navigators responsible for students. In 2010 there were reported to be over 3000 members. The figure for 2020 seems to be roughly the same, though these figures cannot be verified nor do all cities seem to report the number of members in their respective branch. 15 cities are accounted for, the largest of which being Utrecht (500 members), followed by Groningen (450) and notably in third, with roughly the same number of members as Rotterdam (around 300) is Leiden. For reference, the largest general student organization in Leiden is Minerva, with 2000 members.

ORIGIN OF THE AFFAIR

The Leiden branch, NSL, is the focus of this story. The course directive regarding homosexuality, mentioned earlier in the article, is not the document which initially caused turmoil between the university of Leiden, the NSL, and the ‘Lijst Vooruitstrevenden Studenten’ (LVS). Hang in there. The LVS is one of 6 ‘student parties’ that participate in the university’s elections. These elections are used to determine which students represent the student body in the various university councils that have been founded for this purpose. LVS claims one of their main goals is to “…create a diverse and inclusive university, on all fronts.” It was LVS who initially raised the issue of NSL’s practices.

This occurred in February of 2019, when LVS submitted a question at a university council meeting, advising on decisions being made by the university, regarding whether the university approved of giving board grants to organizations which made distinctions on the basis of sexual orientation. LVS initially did not wish to name any organisation specifically, but when the Dean of the university, Carel Stolker, asked for clarification, Gerieke Prins, member of LVS, said they were referring to NSL. Ms. Prins claimed she had obtained this knowledge by speaking to former and current members of NSL. 

NSL was alleged to organize conversations meant to get a better and more personal understanding of its members, which at the same time functioned as an interview for a place on the board. These interviews were purportedly held at a national office representing NSL. One might infer from the statement made by Ms. Prins that she was referring to one of the NSV’s offices or a building used by The Navigators in general. Extracts from her original statement can be read here. If one is potentially attracted to the same sex then this would be a topic that might come up in the conversation. Ms. Prins said NSL had promised to send her a document which would serve as a refutation to the claim that this was relevant for their selection process, but at the time of the council meeting she had not received anything. 

One of the representatives of NSL, Christiaan Verkerk, confirmed at the meeting that a member’s sexuality was a potential interview topic and elaborated that the purpose of these conversations was to understand what a member’s religious life looked like. Both Mr. Verkerk and the preses (president of the board) of NSL at the time, Niek Blok, denied that members/applicants were discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality. Both claimed that the topic would only come up if this occurred naturally and that the interviewee always led the direction of the conversation. As was mentioned by both Mr. Stolker and Ms. Blok at the time, discriminating against someone on the basis of their sexuality is in conflict with the Dutch constitution.

As mentioned above, at the time it was not the course directive which held the focus of the conversation as it had not been supplied by the NSL to either the university or LVS. The representatives had mentioned an ‘employee profile’ which outlined the conversations that were being held. The 2016 edition of this document is available here. Mare, who has done the bulk of the reporting on this story, spoke to the NSL in April of 2019 who at the time did confirm that sexuality was one of the topics mentioned in this document but claimed that this did not have to mean it would come up in conversation. As a result of the council meeting the university spoke with The Navigators and concluded that there was no issue. LVS was still convinced of the existence of the course directive on homosexuality, which then was still a secretive document, the contents of which were unclear. The NSL did not uphold its promise to deliver this document nor did it provide any clarification on its contents, or whether it even existed.

UNCOVERING OF THE COURSE DIRECTIVE ON HOMOSEXUALITY

This remained a mystery until a year and a half later, in October of 2020, the document was unearthed. Mare came into possession of this document, which can be found here. The document does not explicitly deny members of the LGBTQ+ community access to a place on the board but does state that, in the opinion of The Navigators, “…the Bible does not present a homosexual relationship as an alternative intended by God.” Also, “the current literature does not provide a simple answer on the origin of homosexuality” and “experience shows that some LGBT’ers find, in the course of their lives, that they experience a development in their sexual orientation, causing them to again have a heterosexual marriage in their sights.” 

While these standpoints are not particularly remarkable as far as the Christian community is concerned, it is crucial to note that in this document The Navigators stipulate what their directive is on the way in which their members are expected to conduct their love lives. Additionally, it is expected by The Navigators that the NSV and, thus, also the NSL follow up on these directives. This has consequences for the extent to which they can deny whether a member’s sexuality has influence on their ability to become a board member.   

As a result of Mare publishing The Navigator’s course directive on homosexuality, the Interim-director of the NSV and the current president of the NSL now were willing to comment. They stated that they “…regretted that the rumors that gays are not allowed to join the board keep popping up.” The entire interview, conducted by Mare, can be found here. The interview provides further clarification on the behalf of NSL regarding their policy towards LGBTQ+ members of the organisation and the purpose of the documents mentioned in this article. Most importantly, it is explained by the Interim-director of the NSV, Wouter Verbree, that The Navigators (and thus all of its subordinate organizations) expect homosexual members to go through life as “non-practicing bachelors”. 

Mr. Verbree does not clarify whether their open stance to homosexuals fulfilling a function on the board also applies to homosexuals who are in a relationship. If members of The Navigators are expected to uphold the stipulations drawn out by the organisation and this is binding for a member’s ability to join the board then a gay member who is in a same-sex relationship would not be accepted for such a function. Traditional Christian rules regarding sex before marriage are also applied by The Navigators, though one would logically conclude that this only applies to heterosexual couples.    

FURTHER RESPONSE

On the 13th of October it was published that Leiden city council member Paul Dirkse (D66) would have a conversation with NSL regarding the accusations of discrimination. Another council member, Suzanne van der Jagt (PvdA), stated that she was startled by the news. Both parties in the council wished to gain a better understanding of how The Navigators’ viewpoints were put into practice. Additionally, they stated that if it was the case that members of the organization were discriminated against based on their sexual orientation then it was no longer desirable that the NSL received their support. 

In November of this year Carel Stolker clarified on Twitter that he wished to be present at the meeting between Mr. Dirkse and the NSL. A week later both the LVS (student party) as well as Dutch worker’s union FNV declared that they were concerned about the developments surrounding NSL and that, in their opinion, they remained too vague regarding a homosexual’s ability to join the board. The LVS and the FNV both form a part of Leiden’s university council. Both the LVS and the FNV also had questions concerning the Board of Directors at Leiden University — if and when they knew of the course directive on homosexuality and if so, why nobody was informed.   

Three days later, on the 23rd, Mare reported that it was Leiden council member Paul Dirkse’s conclusion, after having spoken with NSL, that homosexuals were not being discriminated against. He also asserted that it was possible for them to become a member of the board. Wouter Verbree has also since stated that homosexual members who are in a relationship are still allowed to join the board of the NSL. On the 28th the NSL released a press statement in which they seemed to imply their intention to distance themselves from the course directive of The Navigators. This is a noticeable shift in their standpoint in respect to the statements they made in the interview with Mare, where the NSL did not concretely state that it was their intention to refute the document. The NSV had published a similar statement on the 26th. 

THE CASE CONTINUES

Leiden University’s Board of Directors answered further questions in the university council’s next meeting on the 7th of December. Both the LVS and the FNV had made clear that they were not satisfied with the situation as it stood. Based on the conclusions of Paul Dirkse and Carel Stolker’s reaction to this, as well as on the NSL’s press statement, it seemed that no  further official action was likely to be taken on behalf of the university or Leiden’s city council. Nevertheless, on the 25th of November it was reported by HP DE TIJD that Dutch parliament member Jan Paternotte (D66) would raise the question with Dutch minister van Engelshoven (Education, Culture and Science). Both happen to be in the same political party. 

Mare indeed reported on the 8th that Mr. Stolker, after having again spoken to LVS after Mr. Dirkse had done so, had no remaining doubt about the standpoint of LVS. He stated that “Both Dirkse and I have confirmed that at NSL there is no wish to discriminate against homosexuals when it comes to positions on the board.” as well as that “NSL is distancing itself from the thought that as a gay person you cannot be a member of the board.”  

Mr. Stolker explained that he had received a letter from NSL which included a statement on the course directive. This letter had been signed by the president of NSL, who had also been a part of the earlier interview conducted by Mare. Mr. Stolker encouraged NSL to publish this letter on their website in order to help create clarity around the organisation’s standpoint. As far as what can be found on the website of NSL, this is the same press statement that was published late November. It is not clear whether Mr. Stolker was the original reason why this statement was published, nor is it clear if the letter he is referring to is different from the press statement, or if NSL simply sent him the press statement that had already been published.   

It is also not apparent what was discussed during the council meeting on the 7th, and whether LVS and FNV are now satisfied with the situation as it stands. Mare published a quote in its article from a member of LVS who stated that they felt relieved and that “NSL’s statement has clarified the situation.” If the letter sent to Mr. Stolker differs from this statement or if they have updated their standpoint then this information does not seem to be publicly available. Neither LVS or FNV seem to have published any new statements. The point being that if NSL has made more concrete commitments than what has currently been published (which LVS and FNV made clear was not satisfactory) then this has not been presented to the public. The member of LVS who made this statement also said to be glad the issue had been clarified in “black and white.” Unless NSL’s press statement now is deemed to be satisfactory, as it stands nothing new has been put on paper. NSL has not explicitly distanced themselves from the document that initiated this story. Questions posed in parliament do not yet seem to have been answered.

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