Calvin University has long prohibited its employees from pursuing same-sex relationships, but Nicole Sweda didn’t think officials at the evangelical university ever enforced the policy.
Now she knows they do.
Until recently, Sweda worked at the Center for Social Research, a hub for social science surveys and analysis that operates under Calvin. When university officials learned that she’d recently married her girlfriend, Annica, they called her into a meeting.
“They opened in prayer, and then they basically asked me two questions: if I had married Annica in the fall of 2021, to which I said ‘Yes,’ and had we been living together since May of 2020, to which I also said ‘Yes,’” Sweda said. “Then they told me that I was in violation of the staff handbook, so I could no longer be employed by Calvin. I asked if I was fired, and they said, ‘Well, we’re not really sure yet.’”
Calvin, a private college in Grand Rapids, Mich., considers non-heterosexual sexual relationships to be sexual misconduct, a common belief among evangelical institutions. While a growing number of students support LGBTQ+ relationships, board members’ attitudes have not changed as quickly, experts say. As a result, it will likely be decades before many evangelical colleges overhaul their policies on non-heterosexual relationships.
The Calvin officials didn’t fire Sweda on the spot. Instead, they decided to part ways with the Center for Social Research, effectively allowing Sweda to keep her job without violating university policies, she said.
In February, the center announced plans to split from Calvin by the end of April. The divorce will be budget neutral and the two institutions will still collaborate, despite becoming separate legal entities, according to the announcement.
Matthew Kucinski, a spokesperson for the university, said that university policies prohibit officials from discussing personnel matters, and he did not comment on what happened to Sweda. He did not reference a personnel decision as the catalyst for the split, though Sweda said that the university hadn’t planned on spinning off the center until her meeting with university officials.
“Decisions like these often happen in a complex context of both immediate, even emergent, issues, longer-term pressures, and future opportunities,” Kucinski said in an email. “And the decision to spinout CSR was both mutual and consistent with previously identified pressures and future opportunities for the center to thrive as an independent entity. While CSR was an integral part of the university for a very long time, we trust that the CSR mission, organization, and community will flourish in new ways as it enjoys some strategic business advantages of independence from the institution, including access to capital, possible co-location with partner organizations, agility, and the workforce diversity they believe necessary for their entrepreneurial community engagement and partnerships.”
News of the institutions’ split was abrupt, which made students and faculty members suspicious about the motivations behind the decision, said Harm Venhuizen, editor in chief of Calvin Chimes, the university’s student newspaper. Venhuizen and other student journalists conducted an investigation that led them to Sweda. Their subsequent reporting on the chain of events that led to Calvin’s split with the CSR prompted Sweda to resign so she could speak out.
“The entire story was going to come out either way, and I felt very strongly that I wanted to be involved in how it was told,” Sweda said. “I quit my job at the Center for Social Research a couple weeks ago so that I could talk without any repercussions.”
Calvin claims to have no issue with LGBTQ+ students and employees—as long as they don’t pursue non-heterosexual relationships. The university website states that the institution treats LGBTQ+ students “with respect, justice, grace and understanding in the Spirit of Christ.” The university is home to a sexuality and gender awareness group and counseling services for LGBTQ+ students.
But those affirmations ring hollow for queer students and employees, Sweda said.
“They really do try to recruit queer students to come there under the guise of being an accepting place for you, and I don’t think that’s true,” she said. “I want it to be a more accepting place, but I don’t think that that’s going to happen. I really hope out of this situation that Calvin is more honest and more up-front about these things.”
The staff handbook states that “Though it is the university’s policy to assure equal opportunity in its hiring, personnel practices and admissions without regard to marital status or sexual orientation, sexual relations outside of marriage are proscribed.” The university, like the Christian Reformed Church it is affiliated with, defines marriage as “a covenantal union between a man and a woman."
Calvin is part of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, whose members have all enacted similar policies against LGBTQ+ sexual relationships.
“Some institutions will fall on a spectrum of positions but all are expected to align around three basic commitments of Biblical Truth, Christian Formation and Gospel Witness,” a spokesperson for the CCCU wrote in an email. “Calvin University is a committed Christian University in the Reformed tradition. As such it has policies for employees that require marriage only between a man and a woman. This is not a new standard and the university has the responsibility to live within and adhere to its stated mission and policies.”
A group of alumni has started a petition demanding that the university change its discriminatory policies. Sweda set up a fundraiser for LGBTQ+ students who need financial assistance to transfer out of Calvin, seek counseling, find gender-affirming housing and more.
Student opinions on LGBTQ+ issues are split, according to Venhuizen.
“You’ve got students who believe-same sex marriages are really wrong or an active sin and completely agree with the [Christian Reformed Church] stance,” Venhuizen said. “And then you have a strong contingent of affirming students and students who are LGBTQ+ and are in same-sex relationships who fall on exactly the other side. It’s definitely a complicated environment with lots of different views on the issue.”
Title IX laws prohibit most institutions from disciplining employees who engage in same-sex relationships. But Calvin has a religious exemption that it can exercise against the federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, said Paul Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, which is fighting such exemptions in court.
“Title IX currently has a religious exemption that courts and the Department of Education have interpreted very, very broadly, such that if you’re a religious educational institution and you don’t like part of Title IX, you don’t have to follow it,” Southwick said.
Such exemptions are often used to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and employees, Southwick said. In the past, colleges and universities have also used them to prevent women from attending certain institutions or enrolling in specific disciplines, to punish them for terminating a pregnancy, to bar access to contraception, and to enforce strict gender norms.
Southwick believes that the split between Calvin and the Center for Social Research is just the beginning of the university’s larger reckoning with its outdated LGBTQ+ policies. Administrators and board members will likely face additional pressures until they are eventually forced, legally or otherwise, to change the rules.
“I see this as a very good sign for equality for LGBTQ+ students and employees at conservative religious institutions, because this is a sign of a failed system starting to break,” he said. “It is a crack.”