GV allows religious office renting

Lizzy Balboa

Even as many U.S. citizens fight to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance and religious resources out of public schools, Grand Valley State University hosts the headquarters of religious organizations right in the center of the Allendale Campus.

Christian and Catholic campus ministries occupy most of the office space in the Cook-Dewitt Center, and they have for some time.

Since the construction of the center in 1991, the Christian organizations have nurtured and supported the Christian lifestyle of a number of students on campus.

Despite its hosting of the religious groups, GVSU retains its public identity and separation of church and state by leasing the office space to the Christian organizations.

Campus Minister Chris Pieters said the university does not fund the presence or activities of the group, which is contracted to pay the university to rent the space.

“We are not employees of the university,” said Pieters, who is hired by the Reformed Church of America. “Our finances and our salaries are all supported by the local churches and donors. Campus Ministry has a relationship with the university where we lease this office space, and that’s existed ever since the Cook-Dewitt Center was created.”

The minister said the contract allows the organizations to function with a solid presence on campus for five consecutive years, at which time the contract may be renewed for another five-year term.

However, while Christian and Catholic Campus Ministries function in on-campus office space, other religious organizations do not have on-campus space.

Dean of Student Services Bart Merkle said he thinks the process to acquire space and the cost to retain it have turned some groups away from pursuing offices.

Merkle said that, in order for religious groups to engage in a lease contract with the university, they must first be a member of the Campus Ministry Counsel.

The counsel, which welcomes representatives from formal organizations of all faiths, has attracted primarily Christian groups.

Of those sects, only the Catholic Church, the Reformed Church of America and the Christian Reformed Church expressed interest in leasing office space, Merkle said.

He added that other faith groups have explored the idea of joining the counsel, but decided not to get involved financially.

The dean said that the presence of Christian and Catholic campus ministries is somewhat of a tradition for GVSU.

“The university has had a long relationship with Campus Ministry,” he said. “They had done programming on campus and that sort of thing [in the past] so, when we built the Cook-Dewitt Center, we sort of more formally established the lease arrangement.”

Merkle said the lease is a legal formality, since the public university must honor the country’s separation of church and state.

He also said the Cook-Dewitt Center was built with money from private fundraising and the state did not contribute to its construction.

If other religious organizations wish to acquire office space, they must be groups formally affiliated with particular religious sects and be represented in the Campus Ministry Counsel.

“There are some limitations just in terms of resources that we will clearly have to grapple with,” Merkle said, “but we certainly would [work to accommodate groups].”

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