Eastern Zone Swimming, the umbrella organization that sits over 12 USA Swimming LSCs in the Eastern United States, has approved a resolution that will keep the organization from doing any business that would be in violation of the Amateur Sports Act policies on discrimination. Specifically, the new policy was written in response to Liberty University, a Christian University in Lynchburg, Virginia, being awarded hosting duties for a 2020 Zone Championship meet.
Bill Kirkner, a member of the Eastern Zone Diversity & Inclusion Committee representing Maryland, says that the issue was first raised at the 2018 convention, when Virginia Swimming announced Liberty’s new natatorium as a potential host site for an upcoming zone meet. At that time, several athlete representatives from Maryland spoke in opposition to the site based on “the institution’s expressed policies of discrimination in hiring and enrollment against L/G/B/T/Q persons.”
While the university’s officially published non-discrimination policy forbids discrimination in lawfully-protected classes like race, color, ancestry, religion, age, sex, national origin, pregnancy, or disability, the policy also explicitly states that they reserve the right to discriminate “on the basis of religion.”
Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. has made several public statements indicating that the university will discriminate against those in the LGBTQ+ community. “Liberty University is pro-life and believes that marriage between one man and one woman provides the best environment for children,” Falwell once said of the university’s policies. “Liberty University will not lend its name or financial support to any student group that advances causes contrary to its mission…Liberty University will not lend its name or financial support to undermine marriage or to promote abortion.”
He also threatened to leave federal government programs that barred them from discriminating against homosexuality. Liberty University does have a subset of students that identify as LGBTQ+, however, and they organized a protest earlier this year against some of Falwell’s statements that the school’s official student newspaper, the Liberty Champion, acknowledged.
“The offices that I oversee exist to ensure that Liberty is an inclusive and welcoming place,” Chief Diversity Officer Greg Dowell said. “No external organization founded Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Liberty. It originated with our president. This is the message that needs to go out and be appreciated by all of our underrepresented groups.”
Dowell says that his job is to make the campus a welcoming place even for those who don’t agree with the university’s mission or doctrinal statement. The University’s doctrinal statement and mission do not explicitly mention homosexuality or gender identity.
At the USA Swimming convention, where the new resolution was proposed, Nadine Johnson, the Eastern Zone Diversity Chair, introduced a motion to reconsider the bid that was awarded to Virginia Swimming and to be hosted at Liberty University. While the leadership discussed the matter, the Eastern Zone athletes caucused in the back of the room.
Nick Poulos, a swimmer for NBAC and a member of the Maryland Swimming Board of Directors, spoke out on the original announcement in 2018 and emerged as a leader of this group and drafted a motion that the Eastern Zone would not be allowed to accept bids from organizations whose policies are in conflict with USA Swimming rule 304.3, and specifically this clause:
Discrimination in violation of the Amateur Sports Act which requires that USA Swimming must provide an equal opportunity to athletes, coaches, trainers, managers, administrators, and officials to participate in the sport of swimming. Athletes must be allowed to participate and compete to the fullest extent allowed by the Rules and Regulations. Discrimination against any member or participant on the basis of age, gender, race, ethnicity, culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, genetics, mental or physical disability, or any other status protected by federal, state or local law, where applicable, is prohibited.
While many states and municipalities have passed laws and ordinances protecting LGBTQ+ communities from discrimination, in Lynchburg, Virginia, where Liberty is located, there are no such local protections in place. In 2018, Virginia governor Ralph Northam signed an executive order protecting against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, though that policy wouldn’t officially extend beyond the state government’s hiring practices. The USA Swimming policy does, however, explicitly mention sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity as classes of discrimination that are ‘prohibited.’
When the Zone was called back to order, Kirkner recalls, Johnson withdrew her motion to cancel Liberty’s hosting, and the Chairs announced that once approved, the bid could not be reconsidered. However, Poulos’ resolution, as it would apply to future bid awards, was unanimously passed by a voice vote. It was clarified that existing bids, including Liberty University, would still move forward, though a “courtesy” request was put in with the Virginia Swimming LSC representatives to contact Liberty University about the matter.
Liberty University unveiled its new 75,000 square foot natatorium with capacity for over 1,414 spectators in December of 2017 for a dual meet between Liberty Universtiy and Campbell. Since its opening, the facility’s timing system has been plagued with errors that has resulted in the loss of National Age Group Records and significant delays and overturns of disqualifications at major meets. The school is installing a new timing system, however, that is expected to be ready for the upcoming 2019-2020 season.
SwimSwam has reached out to Liberty University for comment. A spokesperson for the school has acknowledged our email and says that he has forwarded the request to the appropriate parties. SwimSwam is also working to arrange a conversation with Poulos on the resolution.
Update: SwimSwam has gotten a chance to speak to Poulos about the motion:
“What it [the policy] is intended to do is simply to ensure that in the process of bidding for meets, that our Zone is complying with our values and the Code of Conduct that we have established in USA Swimming,” Poulos said.
When asked about the specific points of Liberty policy the motion was intended to address, Poulos said he couldn’t remember the exact policies that were discussed in the Zone meeting.
“I can’t remember the specific policy that was brought up, just that they [Liberty] have views about sexual orientation that are not necessarily welcoming to all our athletes,” Poulos said. “While the policies may not directly affect the way the meet is run, we feel that some of them may not be conducive to a completely positive environment for all of our athletes to compete fairly.”
“There were also some concerns from athletes and from coaches that they would not be properly welcomed at the facility,” he said.