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At Bellarmine, 'Sanctuary' Status Won't Come Despite Campus Support

Bellarmine University

Bellarmine University’s seal and coat of arms includes a torch, a laurel tree and the fleur de lis.

There’s also a pineapple. And according to the private Catholic university's website, pineapples are a symbol of hospitality.

So some were disappointed when interim president Doris Tegart said in a statement Tuesday that in the wake of President Trump's ban on certain immigrants and refugees, the university would not declare itself a sanctuary campus.

Tegart said there are unintended consequences of making such a designation, including possible loss of federal financial aid for students.

The decision comes in response to a petition from more than 800 students, faculty, staff and alumni to adopt such a policy.

Colleges considering the sanctuary label are grappling with what risk the label may bring while still remaining safe and hospitable. That's at the center of the Bellarmine debate.

On campus, there's strong support for the university to be a sacred space for safety.

“There’s no disagreement there from the board of trustees to the president on down," says Kyle Barnett, associate professor of media studies at the university. "The disagreement comes in how best do we do that."

Last fall, Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, one of those behind the petition and chair of the Theology Department at Bellarmine, taught a class called "The Migrant’s Journey."

“The beginning of that class really focused on the Hebrew Bible and the major theme of knowing the heart of the stranger,” she says.

That understanding helped animate the push for "sanctuary" status — a movement gaining ground across the country. But the term can be vague.

For some, it’s protecting students from xenophobia. For others, it goes much further -- including a refusal to cooperate with a federal order that may get students deported.

“I think where there’s some concern is around what actually happens if Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Customs and Border Protection or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services come to our door," Barnett says. "And then it gets a little more complicated.”

In November 2016, Portland State University in Oregon was one of the first campuses in the country to designate itself a sanctuary campus. There, it means the university won't share confidential student information, such as immigration status, unless required by court order.

“We did so because we as a community share a commitment to the protection and support of all our students,” says Ken Ma, director of media relations for the school.

Bellarmine is a Catholic university. And worldwide, the church has been consistent in welcoming immigrants and refugees.

In December, presidents of more than 70 Catholic colleges and universities issued a statement in support of undocumented students. And so-called sanctuary churches have emerged as some congregations pushed back against Trump's promises to restrict immigration and refugee programs.

But for Bellarmine, the decision was more about staying on the right side of the law.

“The board affirmed Bellarmine University’s core values of inclusion and hospitality but agrees that the university will not violate state or federal laws,” Tegart's statement reads.

Meanwhile, the debate on campus will likely continue.

“Really what a sanctuary campus is about is upholding the law," says Gregory Hillis, associate professor of theology at Bellarmine. "Not actually breaking it."

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.