Fallout From Speaking Out

Gordon professor accuses college of retaliating against her for opposing controversial request that institution be exempt from federal law barring discrimination against LGBTQ employees.

April 29, 2016
Lauren Barthold

A professor of philosophy at Gordon College is suing the institution for allegedly retaliating against her for publicly disagreeing with its request for a religious exemption to a federal antidiscrimination law pertaining to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers. The college says it was the professor's peers who decided to punish her for the tone of her statements.

D. Michael Lindsay, Gordon’s president, signed a 2014 letter asking President Obama to exclude faith-based organizations from a then forthcoming executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Gordon is a nondenominational Christian institution in Massachusetts that prohibits student and faculty sex outside of heterosexual marriage. Lindsay explained his action at the time by saying that while Gordon has never excluded certain groups from campus, “signing the letter was in keeping with our decades-old conviction that, as an explicitly Christian institution, Gordon should set the conduct expectations for members of our community.”

Gordon nevertheless faced criticism from faculty members, students and alumni who disagreed with the request, and the mayor of Salem, Mass., terminated the college’s contract to manage the city’s Old Town Hall, saying in a letter to Lindsay that he “now advocates for discrimination against the LGBT community.”

One of Lindsay’s faculty critics was Lauren Barthold, associate professor of philosophy at Gordon and the plaintiff in a suit filed Thursday in a Massachusetts court. In a 2014 letter to the local newspaper, The Salem News, Barthold wrote that the controversy over Lindsay’s letter had “outed” Gordon’s policy regarding sex outside heterosexual marriage.

“I am sad that this policy stands at all and that news of its existence is likely to cause more pain to and isolation in the Christian LGBTQ community,” she wrote. “I am sad that while some requests to foster internal dialogue about this issue on our campus have been met, responses on the part of the Gordon administration have been too few and too slow. … I am sad that Gordon cannot lead the way amongst Christian colleges by entering into the painful communal work of crafting institutional policy that maintains the integrity of a vibrant, 21st-century faith.”

Barthold also suggested that concerned parties take "difficult practical steps" to influence the discussion.

"I can see reasons for both economic sanctions (so to speak) and for asserting yourself (your views, your money, your actions) more actively into the community — depending on your situation," she wrote. "I am not writing this letter to either plead for your continued support of Gordon or to ask you to boycott the college. While I do not know what the best action you can take is, I do know that all of us at Gordon want Gordon to thrive, regardless of the degree of pain we have suffered working and studying here."

According the lawsuit, Lindsay and other administrators criticized Barthold for those and other public comments, saying she’d fostered an image of discord. Lindsay in a meeting allegedly told Barthold she should “rethink” her relationship with the college in light of her letter to the editor, and wrongfully accused her of leaking to The Boston Globe a year-old faculty climate report detailing some professors' fears that the college was becoming too narrow in its religious identity, according to the suit. Administrators allegedly told Barthold that they planned on initiating termination proceedings against her, but later backed down after receiving a letter from her lawyer.

Still, they pursued a campaign of retaliation, according to the suit, allegedly telling her just one day after she applied for promotion to full professor that she was ineligible for the move in light of her actions, and that she was unable to hold any leadership position within the college until she went through a promotion review or review by the Faculty Senate. She also was notified that she was no longer the director of the gender studies minor, according to the suit.

Yet the college says that it was members of the Faculty Senate, not administrators acting unilaterally, who decided to discipline Barthold. Rick Sweeney, college spokesperson, said in a statement that information about the case from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which sued on Barthold's behalf, "grossly misrepresents" the facts. 

"It was Barthold’s peers on the Faculty Senate who voted to discipline her," Sweeney said. "The discipline was not a response to her disagreement with the college on any policies but expressly because she publicly called for a boycott of the school and severing of ties, which would harm students and potentially affect faculty and staff at Gordon. ...Barthold’s faculty peers voted to discipline her in a manner consistent with past precedent because her actions harmed the Gordon community and violated their trust."

In addition to retaliation, Barthold alleges sex discrimination, saying that male faculty members who were similarly critical of the college were not disciplined in the same way or at all.

Sarah Wunsch, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the organization cares deeply about religious freedom, “but religious freedom does not mean the freedom to do anything to others in the name of religion.” Wunsch also said Gordon hires faculty and staff from a variety of Christian backgrounds -- proof that the college “does not have a right to punish a philosophy professor who criticized a policy of discrimination in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

At the same time, Gordon sets forth a set of behavioral expectations for faculty students and staff -- including no “homosexual practice” on or off campus -- based on a set a faith-based assumptions and principles. Those include recognizing “the Bible to be the Word of God and hence fully authoritative in matters of faith and conduct.”

Sweeney also denied that Gordon has suppressed conversations about LGBTQ issues. "Far from seeking to suppress such disagreement and discussion, Gordon has fostered dialogue by bringing in pro-LGBTQ speakers and funding programs to support LGBTQ students," he said.


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