Denial Undenied

An electric mood buzzed through Riggs Library as the Society gathered for our final Merrick debate of the semester. The rollicking argument would include Kantian moralizing, Greek mythology, and even a freshman playing the Nazi card. It was a typically Philodemic evening indeed! At the end of the night, the Merrick tallies gave us our four keynoters, but first the debate:

The Society considered Resolved: The denial of services based on religious beliefs should be legal. The senior class’s two Floridians keynoted, with Ms. Amanda Wynter (SFS ’14) on the affirmation and Mr. Kevin Diasti (NHS ’14) negating.

Dazzling as always, Ms. Wynter immediately addressed the elephant in the room: the “yuck” factor of the notorious Arizona law that spurred this debate. She reminded the Society that the affirmation does not endorse Christian objections to gay marriage, but holds that people have a right to act on those objections. Putting her trust in our legal system, Ms. Wynter said courts – not Congress – should decide when services can and cannot be denied on religious grounds.

Like Ms. Wynter, Mr. Diasti maintained that tolerance is the bedrock of any society, but in a different way. Strongly contesting the idea that discrimination based on arbitrary traits could ever be considered religious freedom, he defended the free and democratic tradition of imposing reasonable constraints on religious expression.

Mr. Joshua Weiner pushed back against what he saw as a radical expansion of government authority but the always-frank Mr. Danny Graff noted that private enterprises are very different from religious institutions. He implored the Society to give one good reason to deny services in a non-religious institution. Taking up the challenge with his typical matter-of-fact attitude, Mr. Daniel Kendrick held that freedom of conscience is reason enough, but Mr. Joshua Donavan (COL ’13), happily back to visit old friends, criticized Mr. Kendrick’s libertarian absolutism.

Moving beyond Arizona business owners, Vice President Anna Hernick urged the floor to consider conscientious  objectors during wartime but Ms. Emily Coccia disputed that comparison with deft politeness and reminded the Society that the law creates norms. Mr. Patrick Spagnuolo said this was beside the point. Since economic forces have the power to change businesses, the government need not intervene. The Society’s leading liberal, Mr. Dennis Quinn, argued against its leading libertarian, noting that small business and local politics intertwine.

Mr. Michael Mouch rejected economic arguments because they commodify the gay community while Ms. Abigail Grace brought the debate back to the public vs. private nature of religion. She eloquently argued that dignity must take precedence over personal religion and received support from Ms. Laura Kurek. Mr. Gregory Miller rose against both of them for supporting the personal dignity of the customer at the expense of the shopkeeper.

In an extra-entertaining nonmember speaking time, Mr. Christopher Grocki (MSB ’17) argued that we shouldn’t let the government legislate morality like the Nazis while Mr. Mitchel Tu (SFS ’17) assailed liberal Californians, reclining on their terraces with wine, cheese and grapes, for thinking that government can save the world. The ever-sensible Ms. Rosa Cuppari (SFS ’17) emphasized the distinction between explicitly religious organizations and businesses like delicious Chick-fil-A. Mr. Patrick Hughes (COL ’15) said that even if that’s the case, humans are holistic individuals who cannot compartmentalize their commerce from their morals.

This Amanuensis agreed, but stood on a chair and appealed to Catholic Social Teaching to argue that the affirmation would create a society without human dignity that our legal system ought not encourage. Passionately disputing me, Ms. Colleen Wood stressed the freedom to reflect and form opinions offered by the affirmation. Ms. Heather Regen questioned how that could be the case when the law entrenches one viewpoint.

Ever the Defender of the Faith, Chancellor Peter Prindiville attacked the idea that religion must remain within the private realm. Amusingly, he constructed a new, cat-worshipping religion to prove his point. Ms. Madeleine Ringwald dismissed this emphasis on religion since people may hold non-religious values just as dear. “Perhaps this is unfair, but I don’t care,” bluntly responded Mr. Jacob Arber. He saw Ms. Ringwald’s argument as too narrow for the debate and instead focused on the affirmation’s “noble defense” of the individual.

Bringing mythology to the debate, the captivating Mr. David Edgar told the story of Odysseus’s rejection by the king of the bronze island. Just as that rejection was unfair, so too is the rejection of gays by businesses. Sgt. Warren Wilson criticized Mr. Edgar for ignoring the important role of pluralism on the affirmation while Mr. Alden Fletcher held that equality is always a higher virtue than pluralism. In a fun and funny speech, my mentor Mr. Luke Young used Chancellor Prindiville’s cat religion to lampoon any government attempts to grant dignity.

When the debate returned to the keynoters, Mr. Diasti expressed his full faith in the government to do just that. He held that freedom of conscience has never been infinite and can especially be limited when if conflicts with fundamental notions of human dignity. Stealing that pathos, Ms. Wynter appealed to multicultural understanding to argue against illegality. She held that allowing denial would force an open conversation between gays and their detractors who might then shed their paranoia and join the cause.

Ms. Wynter won me over, as well as many others. The vote was 28-0-18 to affirm.

These excellent speakers won Merrick points:

  • Mr. Jacob Arber – 5
  • Ms. Amanda Wynter – 4
  • Chancellor Peter Prindiville – 3
  • Ms. Heather Regen – 2
  • Mr. Luke Young and Mr. Kevin Diasti – 1

So without further ado I present our four Merrick keynoters!

  • Mr. Patrick Spagunolo – 23
  • Ms. Amanda Wynter – 19
  • Mr. Jacob Arber – 17
  • Chancellor Peter Prindiville – 12

I congratulate these four seniors, and thank all those who may not be keynoting Merrick but honored the Society with amazing speeches and innovative ideas:

  • Ms. Heather Regen, Ms. Colleen Wood, and Sgt. Warren Wilson – 11
  • Mr. David Edgar – 7
  • Mr. Drew Cunningham – 5
  • Ms. Caroline Egan, Mr. Michael Mouch, and Mr. Dennis Quinn – 4
  • Mr. Daniel Kendrick and Mr. Ben Mazzara – 3
  • Ms. Madeleine Ringwald – 2
  • Ms. Asha Thanki, Ms. Emily Coccia, Mr. Luke Young, and Mr. Kevin Diasti – 1

Finally, I have a personal exhortation for my fellow Philodemecians. Great speakers will be keynoting our Merrick Debate but many eloquent members missed the cut. Grand Semi is just around the corner – another time when some people will win and some will lose. With all this voting and winning and losing it’s easy to get caught up in the drama and of it all. We like to think that we hold eloquence and liberty in high esteem, while our critics say we’re obsessed with power and pretention. But in my short time here I’ve realized we value something else much more than either extreme. We are a Society. Like all societies, friendship is at our core.

So enjoy Merrick. Dare I say enjoy Grand Semi. But most of all enjoy the company of your fellow Philodemecians. They are your classmates, your friends, your sisters and your brothers. Remember that “Philo” means love. That’s what really deserves a hearty huzzah! and a hoya saxa to boot.


Michael Whelan


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