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WASHINGTON -- At a panel discussion at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities’ annual meeting of presidents today, the presenters made one thing clear: American culture may have changed, but their institutions’ interpretation of the Bible -- which presents homosexuality as immoral -- will not.

So the discussion, as described by the panelists and members of the audience, dealt not with whether colleges should change their attitudes toward gay students, but how to deal with the controversy that breaks out when students or alumni pressure a college to change.

But the fact that the session, which was closed to reporters, was held at all is an acknowledgment that CCCU colleges -- which all require professors to sign “statements of faith” in Christian doctrine, and many of which have behavioral requirements for their student body, including on sexuality -- most likely have gay students on campus and will confront difficult situations when an increasingly accepting culture clashes with the colleges’ theological beliefs.

“It’s a conversation that’s here to stay, and we want the conversation to be both honest and fair,” said Gayle Beebe, president of Westmont College.

Last year, a group of 31 gay and lesbian Westmont alumni wrote a letter to the college, saying they had lived in an environment of “doubt, loneliness and fear” while enrolled there. More than 100 additional alumni signed on in support, and more than 50 faculty members signed a letter in response, asking forgiveness for causing the students pain.

A few months later, an openly gay student at Messiah College, in Pennsylvania, told the Harrisburg Patriot-News that he planned to transfer after two semesters of bullying. Students had excluded him, he said, a professor had called him an “abomination,” he received death threats on Facebook, and his wallet, keys and student ID were stolen, among other incidents, he said.

“It was a very difficult situation,” said Kim Phipps, Messiah’s president, another member of the panel, in part because the college could not counter accusations without revealing private information about the student himself.

Part of the goal of the session was to allow college presidents to discuss how to handle these and other situations, which are happening with increasing frequency on college campuses as more students come out as gay as undergraduates and as other groups, including many representing alumni, ask the colleges to change.

“It’s important to us as leaders of Christian colleges and universities to promote sexual purity, to exercise good pastoral care and to articulate Biblical convictions,” said Philip Ryken, the panel’s moderator and president of Wheaton College in Illinois. At Wheaton, gay alumni and their supporters founded a group, OneWheaton, that counters the college’s view on sexuality, and held an unofficial homecoming event.

All three presidents pointed out that they do not discipline students for same-sex attraction, and that the restrictions on sexual behavior are roughly analogous to those on heterosexual students: all prohibit sexual contact outside marriage. Gay students and alumni argue that a ban on premarital sex is not the same as a ban on homosexual “behavior,” since they would not be able to hold hands with a partner of the same sex, while straight students would.

The presidents emphasized that they want to treat all students, regardless of sexual orientation, with dignity and respect. Ryken said that sensitive issues surrounding sexuality should be handled with “truth and grace.” College leaders should acknowledge “the dignity of all human persons as made in the image of God,” he said, and establish clear priorities for on-campus behavior. At Wheaton, residence life employees are taught to enforce the idea that pejorative humor about gay students -- or anything else, he added -- is unacceptable. But they should also impart their view of the Bible, which includes sex only within heterosexual marriage, Ryken said.

Other groups argue that any attempts to treat gay students with respect while insisting that homosexuality is inherently immoral will ultimately lead to an unwelcoming environment. Soulforce, which advocates for gay students at Christian colleges, has urged those institutions to change their views of human sexuality.

“While the Bible is held by many to be infallible, human beings are fallible, and therefore their interpretation and use of the Bible in ways that continue to deny the whole worth and dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is something we would encourage them to change,” said Cindi Love, executive director of Soulforce and a graduate of Abilene Christian University, a CCCU college. “We would encourage them to open themselves up to the possibility of alternative translations, and applications of those translations, of the Bible and embrace every human being in their midst.”

The presidents emphasized being respectful and nuanced, and said that, when controversies arise, they should discuss how the behavior requirements fit into their overall mission. (Too much focus on sexuality of any kind is a distraction and prevents students from becoming well-adjusted people, Beebe argued.)

“Some people have the impression that Christian colleges and universities spend a lot of time focused on sexuality,” Ryken said. “In our conversations with students, it’s one among many issues. One thing is articulating a complete Biblical view of sexuality.”

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