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A Priest-Educator’s Response to Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard

By Brandt Montgomery

The United States Supreme Court recently released a landmark decision concerning affirmative action in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College.[1] The case’s plaintiffs, a group of Asian American students rejected from Harvard, maintained that the Ivy League school’s admissions procedures violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which mandates that no state “shall deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws.” They asserted that Harvard curated the racial makeup of its classes, which caused a decline in the number of Asian American applicants admitted annually. Thus, the central question was “May academic institutions use race as a factor in their admission decisions?”

Six of the Court’s justices said no, siding with the plaintiffs. The majority argued that

[A student] must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of their race.

Many universities have far too long done just the opposite. And in doing so … have concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin. Our [Constitution] does not tolerate that choice.[2] 

The dissenting justices countered by explaining that what the law says has not always been practiced. One justice particularly wrote that by

Turning back the clock … the Court indulges those who either do not know our Nation’s history or long to repeat it. Simply put, the race-blind admissions stance the Court mandates from this day forward is unmoored from critical real-life circumstances. Thus, the Court’s meddling not only arrest the … generational project that American universities are attempting, [but] it also launches, in effect, a dismally misinformed sociological experiment.

Time will reveal the results.[3]

Both opinions reflect elements of truth. The court’s majority resonates with Thomas Aquinas’s summation of the good of human law. Aquinas asserts the necessity of human law for all humankind, its composition and ratification aiding humanity in righteous living. This means safeguarding every community member and promoting the common good. Thus, human law, to be truly law, must be both just and rational. When laws are such, they become worthy guides for us to be conscious community members. So, yes, the court’s majority judgment is reasonable. Every American should be treated and judged based on individual merits, not by their race. The “letter of the law” of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause reflects the proper legal aims of the American ideal.

As a Christian, I further see the court’s majority opinion as pointing to how our civil laws should reflect God’s revealed law fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus declares that all of God’s law is summarized by the commands to love God with our entire being and our neighbors as we love ourselves (cf. Matt. 22:34-39; Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18). Paul writes throughout Romans of how God’s law is holy, just, and good (cf. Rom. 7:12). Therefore, to judge based on race not only degrades someone’s dignity but also grieves God, who has created every human being in his image. We need just laws to guide us in doing right actions. We do well when there is some sort of proper and good authority functioning among us.[4]

Yet, as Paul stresses his delight in God’s law, he also points out how sin keeps us from doing it perfectly. This makes the court’s minority argument equally reasonable. Because of sin, people throughout the years have judged based on race and not merit. And when laws such as the Equal Protection Clause were passed to ensure historically oppressed groups their legal equality, people found ways to circumvent them. Hence, over time, affirmative action came to embody preferential treatment of historically oppressed groups. Though first developed in the 1960s without such partialities in mind, from affirmative action evolved the aim of giving racial minorities equal opportunities within society on par with the majority population. It became a policy seeking the full justness of the law.

Perhaps not affirmative action, but rather its evolution from a race-blind concept to preferential policy, is what its critics have come to oppose. To read and inwardly digest the gospel is to see affirmative action’s original intentions. God desires the salvation of all people. Through Jesus Christ, God becomes incarnate so that all may be united with him in his death and resurrection (cf. Rom. 6:5-11). And the Holy Spirit comes upon all who repent, confess, and believe, and strive to live out God’s Word. No distinctions dictate to whom God’s salvation is offered. And with affirmative action’s original design calling for the fair treatment of all regardless of their race, color, sex, religion, and national origin, God’s Word likewise is given to and for all, regardless of human distinctions. Spiritually, we all need extra help and redemption. The kingdom of God is affirmative action in its most original form.

For the court’s majority to be proven right and its minority’s concerns put to rest, we must commit to living in the way and doing the things Christ tells us. Only through Jesus can we strive to keep God’s command to love and do good toward others with pure affection. To follow Jesus is to find the courage to bear witness to the truth, that our words and deeds match with God’s command to love our neighbor as we love him and ourselves. Following Jesus — who came down to this earth, gave up his life, defeated death, and rose to life again for us all — is to take affirmative action that the rights of all people are recognized. As John Henry Newman often prayed, our hearts must be directed by God to “help … spread thy fragrance everywhere I go.”

As a Black Episcopal priest who primarily serves at a boarding school, I feel in a real way the tension of the Supreme Court’s decision. It was at an Episcopal day school in my Alabama hometown 26 years ago that I learned of the Church’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic nature, it being Christ’s visible body of different yet equally important members. From this I came to see myself as loved by God and deserving of respect and dignity. Yet, my race doesn’t make me naïve to the prejudices that still exist throughout this country. Even with my qualifications and acquired skills that God has given me, I know that there are some who still regard me with suspicion, questioning if I truly should be where I am. On the one hand, I believe that the court, in theory, got it right. On the other hand, I fear that things will remain the same instead of improving.

Episcopal schools have become crucial mission centers in this post-Christian age. Our identity as institutions connected to the larger Anglican Christian tradition is more important now than it has ever been. To embrace our Anglican Christian heritage is to recognize the connectivity of all God’s people everywhere as being what historic Christianity has always taught and believed. The traditional view is that only through Jesus Christ can exclusion be conquered and race-blind treatment become normative. In Jesus is true affirmative action: the promotion of fairness without preferential treatment. To hold fast to our Episcopal heritage, looking to Jesus as its pioneer and perfector, gives us courage to bear witness in principle and deed to what the Supreme Court’s majority hopes will result from its decision. But as the minority says, “Time will reveal the results.”

A couple of years ago, I was told a moving story regarding John Evan Owens Jr., the eighth headmaster of Saint James School of Maryland from 1955 until 1984. Owens was Saint James’s first priest-headmaster since its founder, John Barrett Kerfoot, in the middle part of the 19th century, and was committed to integrating the school. The story is that during a mid-1960s trustees meeting, discussions centered on admitting a prospective Black student. One of the longtime trustees expressed concern that the school’s several constituencies would not support Saint James admitting a Black student. The trustee reportedly said to Owens, “The voices of our ancestors are telling us not to do this.” Noble Cilley Powell, the ninth Bishop of Maryland and chairman of the Board of Trustees, reportedly responded, “Well, I listen to a different voice. And what that voice is telling me to do is admit him.” The bishop’s words were the start of Saint James School’s diverse community.

The cross of Christ has rendered all premature judgments superfluous and increases the importance of mutual flourishing between one and the other. The Church would do quite well by supporting its schools in modeling this endeavor. The example that our schools can offer in light of the Harvard case can go a long way in changing hearts over to the better part and easing the fears of those so long perceived as less than and “other.” With all of us humbling ourselves before God, things better than we can ask or dream can come to pass (cf. Eph. 3:20). Let us all take affirmative action to be what God desires us to be and foster communities that reflect the kingdom of God.

[1] A similar case, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina, et. al., was consolidated by the Supreme Court under the Harvard case in January 2022.

[2] Opinion of the Court, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College (600 U.S. ____ (2023), p. 40.

[3] Dissent of Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina, et. al. (600 U.S. ____ (2023), pp. 27-28.

[4] I commend Victor Lee Austin’s Up With Authority: Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings (T&T Clark, 2010) for reading on why this point is true.


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