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A group of Samford University alumni are calling out their alma mater after the Alabama institution’s administrators excluded two local churches from its annual campus ministry fair because of their support of same-sex marriage. Leaders of the alumni organization, which supports and advocates for LGBTQ students at Samford, say the recent actions by the university indicate that it is becoming more conservative.
“If Samford doesn’t turn back to the way it was before, this will have signaled a very far right turn à la a Liberty University type of college, which is not what Samford has been for decades,” said Brit Blalock, a 2008 graduate and founder of SAFE Samford. “It’s been much more of a middle-of-the-road, very liberal arts college. This would be a vast departure from that.”
Samford’s vice president of student affairs, Philip Kimrey, wrote in a campuswide email sent Wednesday that “we are welcoming of all denominations and have no policy or plan to restrict any denominations from our campus.” But he added that university leaders “have a responsibility to formally partner with ministry organizations that share our beliefs.
“I recognize that the university’s choices about with whom we partner in student ministry may disappoint some,” Kimrey wrote. “Please know that those decisions are made prayerfully and with the university’s theological commitments in mind.”
No university administrators were made available for an interview. A Samford spokesperson said Kimrey’s letter served as the university’s statement.
The university’s decision was first reported by Al.com. The two churches excluded from the campus ministry fair were the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Samford, a Baptist university in Birmingham with nearly 6,000 students, doesn’t have an official LGBTQ student group on campus; a former president declined to recognize the organization in 2017. Its nondiscrimination policy also does not include sexual orientation and gender identity, putting the institution in the minority of Christian colleges and universities in the United States, said Jonathan Coley, an associate professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University.
“This latest move of kicking the Episcopal Church and PCUSA off campus definitely seems to be a fairly dramatic step backward, because even though Samford has never allowed an LGBTQ student group, those denominations, like the Episcopal Church, have had a long presence on Samford’s campus,” said Coley, who graduated from Samford in 2010 and now serves on SAFE Samford’s Board of Directors.
Coley tracks LGBTQ policies at Christian colleges and universities and has seen an overall shift toward more inclusive policies, but some institutions with discriminatory policies toward LGBTQ students are expanding limitations on student advocacy for LGBTQ rights. Some institutions even outline these limitations in detail in one to two pages in student handbooks, he said.
“While on the one hand, a lot of schools have become more inclusive, schools that are discriminatory have largely doubled down,” Coley said. “Samford still doesn’t have the two pages in the student handbook, but this move seems to be putting it more in league with the Liberty Universities of the world.”
Coley, Blalock and others expected President Beck Taylor, who took over last year, to be more moderate than the previous administration. A New Yorker profile of a gay faculty member at Taylor’s former institution, Whitworth University, suggested he would be more supportive of LGBTQ students.
“I had a really wonderful conversation with him in which he made it very clear that he sought to do no harm to LGBTQ students, and that he knew that a lot of us had felt very harmed in the past,” Blalock said. “I was really caught off guard by this, because it was not at all in keeping with the conversation that he and I had at the beginning of his time at Samford.”
A controversy ahead of Taylor’s inauguration as president in November 2021 was an indication that he would have to negotiate the university’s conservative culture during his tenure. Historian Jon Meacham’s invitation to speak was withdrawn after some students raised concerns about his support for Planned Parenthood. Meacham was eventually brought back to campus to speak as part of a separate event in spring 2022, called Love Thy Neighbor, which focused on respectful civil discourse.
“I want Samford to be a community that embraces conviction and curiosity,” Taylor said at the event. “We want students at Samford to hold to their beliefs strongly. No one is asking you to let go of your convictions. At the same time, I want you to remain curious. I want you to seek out people with different ideas and convictions so you can put your beliefs to the test.”
Blalock said she learned shortly after the campus ministry fair on Aug. 31 that college chaplains for the two churches were turned away from the event because of the denominations’ LGBTQ-affirming stances.
She talked with those involved to piece together what happened. She said Bobby Gatlin, the Samford campus pastor, uninvited the Episcopal Church’s campus ministry organization after a chaplain agreed to share her table with the ministry representing the Presbyterian Church. He told the Episcopalian minister that she couldn’t participate because of her denomination’s LGBTQ-affirming stance, Blalock said.
Kimrey said in the campuswide email that the university was following its Guidelines for Guest Ministry Organizations, which aren’t new and align with the university’s mission, vision and core values.
“Perhaps this policy existed in the background, but it had never been flexed as a reason to exclude groups before, so that’s why it’s all very new to everyone,” Blalock said.
The guidelines outline the process organizations have to follow to get approval to minister on campus. The campus pastor oversees that process and approves applications.
“A Guest Ministry should have and observe a statement of faith and theological perspective that is consistent with the Mission, Vision and Core Values of Samford,” the guidelines say. “As a condition for campus access, a Guest Ministry shall fully and clearly disclose in writing to the Campus Pastor all of its affiliations, foundational theological tenets, means and institutional sources of support, and sponsoring organizations.”
The Reverend Kelley Hudlow, a spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, told Al.com that the church has had a presence at Samford for more than 30 years.
“We have regularly participated in the ministry fairs,” Hudlow told the outlet. “We are not allowed to do ministry on campus currently. We learned that Samford is revising and revamping some of its policies related to guest ministries. We have expressed to Samford that we are very interested in continuing this over 30-year relationship we’ve had with the university.”
Gatlin became the campus pastor in 2019, and guest ministry on campus was suspended during the pandemic, according to Al.com. The PCUSA and Episcopal Church’s stances on LGBTQ rights predate the pandemic.
Blalock said Samford has historically been ecumenically diverse, and she wants to see the university return to that status. SAFE Samford has launched a public letter-writing campaign to advocate for a change in policy. In the first day of the campaign, the organization received more than a dozen letters of support, and Blalock is expecting more along with advocacy by student and faculty groups.
“There’s a lot in process right now, and I expect to see a whole lot more come of the issue,” she said.