Christian Colleges Are Tangled In Their Own LGBT Policies

Mar 27, 2018
Originally published on March 27, 2018 1:16 pm

Conservative Christian colleges, once relatively insulated from the culture war, are increasingly entangled in the same battles over LGBT rights and related social issues that have divided other institutions in America.

Students and faculty at many religious institutions are asked to accept a "faith statement" outlining the school's views on such matters as evangelical doctrine, scriptural interpretation and human sexuality. Those statements often include a rejection of homosexual activity and a definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Changing attitudes on sexual ethics and civil rights, however, are making it difficult for some schools, even conservative ones, to ensure broad compliance with their strict positions.

"Millennials are looking at the issue of gay marriage, and more and more they are saying, 'OK, we know the Bible talks about this, but we just don't see this as an essential of the faith,' " says Brad Harper, a professor of theology and religious history at Multnomah University, an evangelical Christian institution in Portland, Ore.

LGBT students at Christian schools are also increasingly likely to be open about their own sexual orientation or gender identity.

At Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., junior Sam Koster, who identifies as queer, finds fellow students to be generally tolerant.

"People I've met in the English Department," Koster says, "even in my dorms, they're like, 'Oh, you're queer? OK, cool. Do you want to go get pizza?' "

Staff and faculty at these Christian schools have to balance a need to attend to their students' personal and spiritual needs with a commitment to their schools' faith statements or official positions on sexuality.

"You've got those two values," says Mary Hulst, senior chaplain at Calvin. "We love our LGBT people. We love our church of Jesus Christ. We love Scripture. So those of us who do this work are right in the middle of that space. We are living in the tension."

Calvin College is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, which holds that "homosexual practice ... is incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Scripture." Hulst leads Bible study groups with her LGBT students and discusses with them the passages that refer to same-sex relationships.

"Those are the clobber passages," Koster says. "They're used to clobber queer kids back into being straight."

Koster was troubled by those Bible verses at first but eventually became comfortable with a devout Christian identity and joined the Gay Christian Network.

"When I realized that my faith wasn't necessarily about the [Christian Reformed] Church, and it wasn't even necessarily about the Bible but about my relationship with God and that God is all-encompassing and loving, I felt very free," Koster says.

Koster says Hulst helped guide that faith journey, but Hulst herself is still torn between her love for her LGBT students and her own understanding that the Bible does not really allow them to act on their sexual orientation.

"It's a place where you need to be wise," Hulst says. "I tell them I want to honor Scripture, but I also honor my LGBT brothers and sisters."

It doesn't always work out.

"Someone from the LGBT community will say, 'If you will not honor the choices I make with my life, if I choose a partner and get married, then you're not actually honoring me.' I can understand that," Hulst says, grimacing. "I can see how they might come to that conclusion."

Legal entanglement

In addition to changing social and cultural attitudes, conservative religious schools face a changing legal environment regarding LGBT issues. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of "race, color, religion, sex, or national origin."

Though the language does not refer to sexual orientation or gender identity, some courts have interpreted Title VII as protecting LGBT individuals and the recent trend has been in a pro-LGBT direction.

Christian colleges and universities also have to consider Title IX of the Higher Education Amendments of 1972: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

As with Title VII, the question of whether "sex" under Title IX should be interpreted as referring to sexual orientation is hotly debated.

In April 2015, during a Supreme Court argument over the constitutional rights of LGBT individuals, Justice Samuel Alito noted that Bob Jones University in South Carolina had lost its tax-exempt status because of its prohibition on interracial dating and marriage.

"Would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?" Alito asked then-U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr.

"It's certainly going to be an issue," Verrilli answered. "I don't deny that."

The exchange alarmed officials at conservative religious schools, for which the loss of tax-exempt status or federal funding would be devastating. Their anxiety deepened a year later, when the Obama administration notified colleges and universities that it interpreted Title IX as prohibiting discrimination "based on a student's gender identity, including discrimination based on a student's transgender status." Christian schools saw that letter as threatening a loss of federal funding if they refused to accommodate students who identify as transgender and want to be housed with other students who share their gender identity.

Upon taking office, the Trump administration rescinded the Obama directive, but some leaders at Christian schools still fear the cultural and legal trends are in favor of expanded LGBT rights on their campuses, which could mean their policies on sexual behavior could face serious challenges.

Educational institutions can currently apply for an exemption from the nondiscrimination provisions of Title VII by demonstrating that those provisions contradict their religious beliefs, but opinions vary on whether those exemptions will protect Christian colleges that seek to maintain strict student and employee policies relating to sexual orientation.

"Religious exemptions are exemptions because they are for small groups of people, and it doesn't necessarily undermine the full purpose of the law to have them," says Shapri LoMaglio, vice president for government affairs at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. "I think case law is upholding the idea that that exemption is the right thing in order to be faithful to the Constitution."

Other Christian college leaders, however, fear that the application of civil rights law to LGBT individuals could eventually jeopardize religious exemptions.

"Four years down the line, eight years down the line, depending on the makeup of the Supreme Court, depending on who is president, I can see the gay/transgender issue being pushed in a way that would seek to make Christian colleges either surrender their federal funding or change their position and conform with the wider consensus," says Carl Trueman, a professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.

Preparing for revoked funding

In a recent article in the journal First Things, titled "Preparing for Winter," Trueman argued that conservative Christian schools need to begin planning for a "worst-case scenario, where not only federal money but also tax-exempt status is revoked."

The combination of changing social attitudes and more complex legal issues were major points of discussion when the CCCU assembled representatives of more than 130 of its member institutions in Dallas in late January. College chaplains, student counselors and classroom professors reviewed how they were responding to LGBT students, while administrators and financial officers considered whether they need to prepare for more government scrutiny of their positions and policies on sexual orientation and activity.

One off-the-record session titled "Is Government Funding Replaceable?" was packed solid.

"The fear is so large in many institutions because 40 or 50 or maybe even 60 percent of their budgets are really coming from the federal government," says Dale Kemp, the chief financial officer at Wheaton College in Illinois and the speaker at the CCCU session. "To think they could survive without that [funding] would be catastrophic."

Brad Harper of Multnomah University, which affirms that "sexual relationships are designed by God to be expressed solely within a marriage between a man and a woman," says he has seen growing anxiety about the future of federal aid at like-minded schools in recent years.

"Every single Christian institution is wondering about that, and thinking, 'What happens if we lose government funding?' " he says. "Everybody has done the math about how much money you would have to raise if you lose government funding. You can't do it."

Just as vexing are the cultural questions, especially among the staff and faculty who work with LGBT students on a daily basis. All colleges and universities receiving federal aid are required to have a Title IX coordinator responsible for working with students who feel they have been subject to discrimination because of their sex. Whether gay or transgender students are entitled to Title IX protection is unresolved, so Title IX coordinators find themselves having to judge on their own how to respond to those students who seek their help.

"Sex has to do with identity and your gender and with who you are," says Christine Guzman, the Title IX coordinator at Azusa Pacific University in California, "so if there's a student who is feeling discriminated against because of their gender, then, yes, absolutely, I'm going to apply that law."

So far, at least, Guzman is attentive to gay and transgender students despite her school's official belief that human beings are created "as gendered beings" and that heterosexuality is "God's design."

At Calvin College, Hulst says the struggle to find an appropriate response to her LGBT students is among the most difficult challenges she has faced as a college chaplain.

"The suicidality of this particular population is much higher," she notes. "The chances that they will leave the church are much higher. These [realities] weigh very heavily on me."

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We have reported here before on a conflict between Christian conservatives and supporters of LGBT rights. Religious colleges can be a battleground in that struggle. Many of those schools hold to a belief that marriage is only for one man and one woman, and that gender means the sex at birth. But LGBT students attend those colleges, and the staff who work with them can feel torn by their responsibilities. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The Council for Christian Colleges & Universities recently brought staff from its member schools to a meeting in Texas to mull over the challenges they're facing. Near the top - how long their strict positions on sexual ethics can hold up, given changing cultural attitudes.

MARY HULST: You've got those two values.

GJELTEN: Mary Hulst is the campus chaplain at Calvin College in Michigan.

HULST: We love our LGBT people. And we love our church of Jesus Christ. We love Scripture. And so those of us who are doing this work are right in the middle of that space.

GJELTEN: Time was, there wasn't so much tension in that space. Brad Harper says when he started teaching theology almost 20 years ago at Multnomah University in Oregon, students largely went along with the us-against-them mentality of the evangelical right. But he says his students today are uncomfortable with that mentality.

BRAD HARPER: And part of it is because they've become very much a part of the fabric of culture.

GJELTEN: At Multnomah, the Bible is said to be the foundation of its educational program. Harper says his students still consider themselves Christian but don't have strong feelings about things like same-sex marriage.

HARPER: More and more, they are moving to this place of saying, OK, we know the Bible talks about this, but we just don't see this as an essential of the faith, so we're really not going to worry about it.

GJELTEN: That's certainly true at Calvin College in Michigan. The school is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, which rejects same-sex relationships as inconsistent with biblical teaching. But Sam Koster, who identifies as queer, feels entirely comfortable there.

SAM KOSTER: Even just, like, my dorms, there've been people who are like, oh, you're queer? OK, cool; do you want to go get pizza?

GJELTEN: Koster is a regular at campus Bible study classes, where students consider the verses that refer to same-sex activity.

KOSTER: Clobber passages used to sort of clobber queer kids back into being straight.

GJELTEN: Koster was troubled by those passages at first but eventually came to feel comfortable with being Christian and joined the Gay Christian Network.

KOSTER: When I realized that my faith wasn't necessarily about the church and it wasn't even necessarily about the Bible, but it was about my relationship with God and that, you know, God is all-encompassing and loving, I felt very free.

GJELTEN: Koster credits Pastor Mary Hulst, the Calvin chaplain, for that faith journey. But Hulst herself is still torn between her love for her LGBT students and her own understanding that the Bible does not really allow them to act on their sexual orientation.

HULST: I want to honor both of these things. I want to honor Scripture, and I want to honor my brothers and sisters.

GJELTEN: It's not always easy.

HULST: Some in our LGBT community will say, well, if you won't honor the choices I make with my life - if I choose to find a partner and be married - then you're not actually honoring me, which I understand. I can see how they would come to that conclusion.

GJELTEN: This question of how to reconcile conservative views of sexual ethics with the real-life needs of LGBT students came up again and again at the Christian Colleges meeting in Texas. As a student counselor at Azusa Pacific University in California, Christine Guzman signed a statement endorsing the school's conservative position on marriage, but she won't pass judgment on her LGBT students.

CHRISTINE GUZMAN: Who am I to play God, or who are we to say, you know, you have to identify this way? You know, everybody has their relationship with God, and it's personal. It's Holy Spirit-inspired.

GJELTEN: Guzman is the Title IX coordinator at Azusa Pacific, meaning under federal law, she's the contact person for students who say they face discrimination because of their sex. Schools that engage in such discrimination can lose federal funding. Does that mean Christian colleges should worry that sticking to conservative positions on sexuality might get them in trouble with the government? That story later today on All Things Considered. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BING AND RUTH'S "WARBLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.