10/09/2012 01:14 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Human Rights and the Human Need for Love

I teach 4th and 5th grade at a small public school on New York City's Lower East Side. Our theme study this year is "Rights and Responsibilities." To launch our study, we recently had a class discussion on "needs" and "wants."

"A need, well, it's just, you know, something you need!" said one of the students with a certain look of puzzlement. My co-teacher stepped in, "So if I want to give you the definition of a Humpolumpogus and I say to you, 'A Humpolumpogus is a Humpolumpogus.' Would you know what a Humpolumpogus is?" Giggles spread across the group as a few more students raised their hands. "A need is something that if you didn't have it you couldn't live. You might die." There were several satisfied nods of agreement. But then another student spoke up, "Well, no, I disagree. Like... what about love? You're not going to die without love. But you need love."

While my students are grappling with questions of rights and responsibilities, the state of Minnesota is preparing to vote on an amendment to their state constitution that is a commentary both on human rights and the human need for love. The Minnesota Marriage Amendment seeks to recognize marriage as"Solely Between One Man and One Woman."

In late September, Linda Hanson, the president of my Saint Paul alma mater, Hamline University, released a letter announcing an official position of neutrality on this amendment: "Significant and careful consideration of this matter has been given by me, the Board of Trustees and many of you in the community. Such consideration has led to the conclusion that Hamline will not take a position in opposition to or in favor of the amendment."

President Hanson's position runs absolutely contrary to the spirit of the university I attended. Hamline, the oldest university in Minnesota, lists among its core values, "An individual and community ethic of social justice, civic responsibility, and inclusive leadership and service." I majored in social justice with an emphasis in conflict studies, and in 2003 I was awarded the John Wesley Leadership and Service Award, founded by the Board of Trustees to "reward those students who best demonstrate a commitment to leadership and service that lies at the heart of Hamline University." Because of the university's official stance, however, last week I wrote a letter requesting that my award be annulled. I can no longer stand by a governing body that cannot stand by the same values of leadership and inclusion that the Wesley Award was designed to recognize.

I am by no means alone in my beliefs. The president's letter came ahead of a vote in which faculty voted overwhelmingly to oppose the amendment, citing the university's mission and values. Students organized a "rally against neutrality" and acts of protest have been ongoing. Letters began pouring onto social media and into the president's office from indignant students, faculty, and alumni who feel that the university has deeply betrayed its core values.

Furthermore, two of the colleges in Hamline's own consortium, Augsburg and Macalester, have already issued official statements opposing the marriage amendment. Hamline now stands aligned with the two Catholic universities in the consortium St. Thomas and St. Catherine. Hamline's own religious tradition, the Methodist church (founded by the same John Wesley for which my award was named), also stands in opposition to the amendment in Minnesota.

In 2003, the same year that I received the Wesley award, I helped organize a ceremony commemorating the 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter From Birmingham Jail." In the letter, King expresses his frustration with the "white moderate" who consistently placed their fears regarding political will and expedient measures of direct action above a moral obligation to end racial injustice. But as King notes, "oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever." In other words, there will come a time in which political will aligns with moral obligation.

At this moment in time, the Hamline Board of Trustees may believe that the political will for marriage equality does not yet exist in Minnesota and a stance against the amendment may translate into losses in funding from conservative donors. Members of the board, who are major donors themselves, may be leveraging their position -- calling only for "civil discourse" and "civic engagement" -- to protect a contradiction between their personal beliefs and the university's stated values. These fears are not becoming for a university that has prided itself, since its early founding, on a"pioneering spirit" and "inclusive traditions and values."

In class next week, I will read We Are All Born Free, an Amnesty International picture book that beautifully illustrates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It begins quite simply, "We are all born free. We have our own thoughts and ideas. We should all be treated in the same way. These rights belong to everybody, whatever our differences."

Regardless of the outcome in Minnesota this year, I am confident that in the decade it takes my students to reach college, the right of individuals to love and marry whomever they choose will be protected nationwide. My hope is that Hamline will have the courage to reverse its position and instill in its students these moral values, which will seem unquestionable in a few years time.