Divorce: Grounds for Dismissal

At Wheaton in Illinois, a professor resigns to avoid being fired under college policy on marriage.
April 25, 2008

Kent Gramm, a full professor of English at Wheaton College, in Illinois, is amidst two painful separations.

He and his wife are divorcing. And, because he’s choosing not to discuss the terms of that first separation with his employers -- to determine whether the divorce falls within what the college considers to be appropriate Scriptural parameters -- he’s resigning from Wheaton in what he calls “a mutually agreed-upon separation. And the alternative of it would be to be fired.”

“This is sort of an additional and very significant separation. I’ve been there for 20 years. I’m very attached to the students,” Gramm says.

“There’s a considerable amount of grief, but I was aware that this would be the consequence, and I’ve been aware of this for a long time. So, in another sense, I’ve prepared myself ahead of time for this.”

Wheaton, a non-denominational evangelical Protestant college, maintains a strong commitment to its statement of faith and community covenant, the latter a social compact based on biblical standards for Christian character and behavior. Wheaton's long-standing policy on divorced employees stems directly from those two documents, the provost, Stan Jones, says.

“The college has uniformly emphasized the biblical expectation of marriage to be permanent, a picture of our relationship (the bride) to Christ (the bridegroom),” Wheaton’s policy reads. It states that while it does not consider divorce to be “an unpardonable sin…it takes seriously the high expectation set for those who love the Lord and believes that the growing trend of ‘Christian’ divorce is both weakening the role model our young people deserve and providing poor commentary on our biblically-derived understanding of God’s desires for the marriage union.”

If an employee or applicant’s divorce falls outside the acceptable parameters for divorce listed in the policy – desertion or adultery on the part of the partner – a divorce is grounds for firing, Jones confirms (or, not hiring). When asked what would happen if an employee were in an abusive relationship, Jones answered that while it’s tricky to speak of hypothetical scenarios, the college would not want to force such a relationship's continuation. “Desertion can take different forms, as also can adultery. We try to extend all reasonable compassion to the plight that all individuals face.”

“The policy calls for us to try to make a compassionate, thoughtful evaluation of the circumstances, and we are then in a real bind if a person for whatever reason chooses not to discuss those circumstances,” Jones says.

Such is the case with Professor Gramm, a faculty member since 1988. For him, he says, it didn’t seem appropriate “to subject your personal life to the judgment of the college administrators.” However, he told his students of his reasons for leaving – first reported in Wheaton’s student newspaper, The Wheaton Record – to offer them an alternative model of Christian living. Gramm, who teaches literature, fiction and nonfiction writing, has his master of divinity degree in addition to his M.A. and Ph.D.

“I think the students can be given a false picture of what the proper Christian life should be," Gramm says. "Whereas many of these students come from households that have been broken by divorce, and if they conform to the overall population, half of them themselves will be going through divorce. And if they are shown that God doesn’t abandon you if you are divorced and they’re shown that this is a part of life and that sometimes it can possibly be the right thing or the best thing, not necessarily the desirable thing, to do, then I think that might help them in their future lives."

Gramm is on the professorial job hunt but isn’t optimistic given his age and rank, and the current season of the hiring cycle. He says that he believes the policy on divorce, while intended to ensure modeling of good Christian behavior, is not a good policy. “It’s a complex issue because when a person goes through something like this, getting cut off from their community does not seem like good Christian behavior," Gramm says.

Wheaton and other religious organizations have significant latitude in employment decisions, if their policies are linked to religious views. But Gramm wonders about Wheaton's choices in exercising that legal latitude in this case.

“In the state of Illinois, it isn’t legal to connect a person’s employment to their marital status, and I think the question might be asked whether the self-identified Christian institutions have higher standards than the state or whether they have lower standards.”

The issue of divorce among employees or applicants typically arises at Wheaton between three and six times a year, the provost says. This same issue attracted attention in early 2006 at another religious institution, Oklahoma Christian University, when administrators moved to formalize what was already existing practice in describing divorce, other than when based on “Scriptural grounds,” as cause for possible termination. Coming under fire, the university withdrew the draft written policy, but stood by its existing practice in responding to “non-Christian marriage model[s].”

Simultaneous to the Oklahoma Christian controversy, Wheaton was likewise facing flak for its decision to fire a philosophy professor who converted to Roman Catholicism.

"From the broader missional perspective,” Provost Jones says, “we’re a distinctly religious institution as well as being a thoroughly academic institution, so we’re very public and explicit about the nature of the theological and faith commitments that we hold for our community.”


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