If you are gay, like me, or an ally, and work, like me, at a member institution of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), you may have wondered this summer if the bad news about Christian colleges was ever going to end. In June, Eastern Mennonite University’s board announced that it was going to delay a decision whether to change the university’s current hiring practice, which does not permit employees to be in “covenanted same-sex relationships”; however, the board also stated that the current policy is suspended, creating a certain Kafkaesque situation. If a gay person in a “covenanted same-sex relationship” is hired during the suspension, or comes out, and the board decides to not change its current policy, what then?
CCCU member institutions (George Fox University, Simpson University, and Spring Arbor University) asked for and received religious exemptions from the Department of Education’s regulation that transgender students cannot be treated differently under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. A California state judge upheld California Baptist University’s decision to expel a transgender student.
But two letters submitted to President Obama requesting that a religious exemption be included in his then-pending executive order that federal contractors could not discriminate against LGBT employees provoked the most controversy. The first letter, dated June 25, 2014, and organized by the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, had 158 signatures, among them 25 presidents of CCCU member institutions. The second letter was submitted on July 1, 2014, signed by 14, among them Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College, a CCCU college.
On July 21, President Obama signed the executive order that added sexual orientation and gender identity to those categories protected by Executive Orders 11478 and 11246. The order does not include the requested religious exemption — only time will tell what litigation this omission will spark. I suspect the Alliance Defending Freedom is ready and waiting for the first CCCU college to knock on its door for legal help to keep LGBT persons at bay.
Others have written about the legal issues raised by this executive order for CCCU colleges. And the stream of books about biblical and theological perspectives is unending. I, for one, have probably read my last book providing a theological and biblical defense of same-sex relationships. Yes, there are some, e.g., Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, by James V. Brownson. As one supportive friend expressed it, “This conversation ended for me several years ago.”
Usually I can ignore the clamor about LGBT persons at Christian colleges — I am out to a small circle of friends where I teach and have other close friends who support me. I walk into my classroom and remember how much I enjoy talking about ideas. And teaching permits me to read books and discuss them. But reading the two letters submitted to President Obama requesting a religious exemption reminded me how many think that my presence threatens the moral health of their institutions even though I am a co-religionist. If an out, gay professor at a Christian college were teaching the Krebs Cycle in Biology 101 or explaining the origins of World War I in History 370, does the content then suddenly become inaccurate? Or will s/he "have a gay agenda"?
Do some CCCU institutions think having out, gay, married faculty/staff would be interpreted as an official endorsement of same-sex marriage? I have colleagues who are divorced — does their presence mean the institution "endorses" divorce? No, it does not. I have married colleagues who have chosen not to have children. Does this mean the university "endorses" that choice? No, it does not. The university simply recognizes the freedom to decide for ourselves what is best and makes for fulfilled lives.
Some signers of these letters have not acquitted themselves well once negative reaction set in. President Lindsay of Gordon has now said he “never would have signed the letter if he had known it would become public.” So much for the courage of his convictions.
Friends at another CCCU institution told me that there was general confusion when the president, having signed the letter, insisted that his institution did not, in fact, discriminate against LGBT persons. This despite language in the faculty and student handbooks which has prevented out, gay, partnered faculty from being hired for decades.
One of the more disappointing statements was made by William Robinson, interim president of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, who stated, “The issue is not homosexuality. It’s religious freedom.” How can the issue not be homosexuality when faculty handbooks and institutional statements at CCCU institutions contain language that bars hiring gay people?
From Biola University’s Standard of Conduct for faculty: “members of the Biola community are not to engage in activities that Scripture forbids. Such activities include, but are not limited to, dishonesty, thievery, fornication, adultery, homosexual practice...."
From Bethel University’s “Covenant for Life Together”: “The Bible also identifies character qualities and actions that should not be present in the lives of believers. For example: destructive anger, malice, rage, sexual immorality, impurity, adultery, evil desires, greed, idolatry, slander, profanity, lying, homosexual behavior, drunkenness, thievery, and dishonesty.”
“The issue is not homosexuality. It’s religious freedom.” Please.
But for the issue of homosexuality, letters requesting a religious exemption from the president’s executive order would never have been written. Robinson’s statement is sadly reminiscent of language used by Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, in a 2000 interview with Larry King on CNN. Jones responded this way to a question about the university’s ban on interracial dating: “Well, being a Bible believing institution, Larry, we try to base things on Bible principle [sic]. The problem we have today is that our principle is so greatly misunderstood. People think we don't let them date because we are racist, in other words to be racist you have to treat people differently. We don't. We don't let them date, because we were trying, as an example, to enforce something, a principle that is much greater than this. We stand against the one-world government.... The Bible is very clear about this.... There is a religious freedom issue, that's all we ever fought for.”
CCCU presidents who signed a letter to Obama to ensure religious freedom should encourage their respective institutions to make truth-in-advertising a hallmark of information for prospective students. I would suggest the following statement:
If you are a student who is wrestling with your sexual and/or gender identity, then [name of institution] is probably not the place for you. It is not that we don’t recognize the reality of your struggle (in fact, we have a student organization where you can find support — depending on the institutional policy), but our religious liberty comes first. If you are gay and do enroll, you should know that the moment you graduate your status changes. Should you find someone to love and share life with and marry, we will not hire you.
A member of the Gordon College community wrote an eloquent essay on the controversy titled, “How long O Lord?” posted at an anonymous blog for members of the Gordon community “who want to share their thoughts yet don’t feel they can.” The author identifies himself/herself as “Anonymous Staff/Professor” and writes:
“How long O Lord? Scripture often uses this phrase as a sign of lament.... For my community at Gordon I ask, How long O Lord?.... How long until we have real conversation about the image of God and the possibility that maybe we’ve been interpreting scripture wrong on this issue for centuries? .... How long O Lord till we repent for dividing your community? I pray that it will not be too late when we do. This I lament.”
Amen and amen.