Two Christian Colleges Change Policy after the Obergefell Ruling

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling late last month in the Obergefell case, there was much speculation that religiously-affiliated schools and universities could feel pressure to change their policies vis-à-vis LGBT individuals. For a calm, well-informed consideration of potential issues facing Christian colleges and universities after Obergefell, I recommend John Hawthorne’s response to an earlier post from Philip Bethancourt of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

As John noted in responding to Bethancourt’s sixth “religious liberty threat for Christian higher education,” one Christian university (a would-be “Protestant Notre Dame“) had already announced a change pertaining to LGBT students:

Tidwell Bible Building, Baylor University
The Tidwell Bible Building at Baylor University – Creative Commons (Kairos14)

This section deals with issues of student lifestyle restrictions. How can schools prohibit homosexual behavior? Again, these are issues already raised in Lawrence [the 2003 case in which the Supreme Court struck down laws criminalizing consensual same-sex behavior]. These require schools to look closely at their lifestyle policies to make sure they are properly connected to institutional identity. It’s worth noting that Baylor announced an adjustment to their policy last week changing their prohibition to premarital sex without singling out homosexual behavior. Other schools will likely quickly follow suit.

Before last week, Baylor’s sexual misconduct policy defined “Misuses of God’s gift” as being “understood to include, but not be limited to, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, incest, adultery, fornication and homosexual acts.” It now states simply it will be “guided by the biblical understanding that human sexuality is a gift from God and that physical sexual intimacy is to be expressed in the context of marital fidelity.” University spokeswoman Lori Fogleman told the Waco Tribune-Herald that “These changes were made because we didn’t believe the language reflected the university’s caring community.”

But to John’s mind, “the important issue on [Bethancourt’s] list” and “the one most directly impacted by the Supreme Court decision” had to do with hiring practices for faculty and staff. “Will schools be able,” asked Bethancourt, “to hire faculty and staff in accordance with their Christian convictions?” For example, could a Christian college refuse to hire a gay man or lesbian woman in a legally recognized marriage who otherwise would be an ideal fit for an open faculty position? On this point, John agreed that there were “very real concerns”; he called it “the most urgent matter for Christian Institutions to carefully engage.”

I’m not sure how far the other shoe has dropped here, but it is noteworthy that Hope College today announced that it would extend benefits to same-sex spouses of its employees. Interviewed by the Holland Sentinel about the change in policy, Hope’s VP for public affairs, Jennifer Fellinger, explained that the college “does not discriminate in employment policy and practices on the basis of sexual orientation or marital status, and the school does not intend to start doing so now…. As it has in the past, Hope College welcomes students, staff and faculty based on their ability to contribute to the life of the college, not on their sexual orientation or marital status.”

(Four years ago, Hope drew attention for announcing a “Position Statement on Human Sexuality” holding that “Sexuality, including longing and expression, is a good gift from God and a fact of our existence affirmed in the Christian scriptures and by the Church throughout the centuries. This biblical witness calls us to a life of chastity among the unmarried and the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.” It pledged to provide “safe places for the Hope community to discuss issues of human sexuality as well as educational programming on a variety of human sexuality issues” but also refused to “recognize or support campus groups whose aim by statement, practice, or intimation is to promote a vision of human sexuality that is contrary to this understanding of biblical teaching.” “Christian College Now Mildly Less Hostile to Gays” ran the ensuing headline in Washington Monthly.

As that 2011 statement emphasized, Hope is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, which has had a long internal debate about its stance against same-sex marriage. At its General Synod last month, RCA delegates voted to form a special council that would bring recommendations for a “pathway forward” on sexuality to the 2016 meeting.)

Dimnent Chapel, Hope College
Dimnent Memorial Chapel at Hope College – Creative Commons (Trenner1945)

Do these announcements signal wider changes coming in Christian higher ed? That’s far from clear.

Both institutions somewhat downplayed the significance of the shifts. Fellinger framed Hope’s policy as a continuing attempt to operate in accord with the laws of the state of Michigan, which before June 26 did not recognize same-sex marriage but now does. (As far as I know, other Christian colleges in Michigan still do not hire employees in same-sex relationships, let alone extend benefits to their spouses. Please correct me if I’m wrong, Michiganders.)

In the Waco Tribune-Herald piece, the reporter added that Fogleman “would not elaborate on whether the policy opens the door for married same-sex couples at Baylor in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling knocking down bans on same-sex marriages.” Instead, the Baylor spokeswoman referred to the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message statement of the Southern Baptist Convention, which defines marriage as “the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime.” (Language that went unchanged in the 2000 revision.)

And it’s worth noting that while Baylor and Hope identify as Christian institutions, neither is a member of the evangelical Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the group of schools widely expected to struggle most with the kinds of issues discussed by Bethancourt and Hawthorne. Baylor does have associate status with the CCCU, whose own statement on June 26th quoted Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion as supporting the conclusion that “the tax-exempt status and religious hiring rights of religious institutions will be protected when they advance the religious mission of a college or university.”

3 thoughts on “Two Christian Colleges Change Policy after the Obergefell Ruling

  1. Wow, that is quite a change for Hope, isn’t it?

    It seems like the best scenario for conservative colleges to act within the law might be to follow European models and articulate a clear distinction between church marriages and civil marriages. (France, which only legalized same sex marriage in 2014 has had civil solidarity pacts since 1999 and recognizes two types of unofficial common law-type relationships.) I don’t know to what extent church schools and other religious institutions might be allowed to discriminate in hiring or disciplinary actions towards employees and students on the basis of the type of marriage they might have, but it seems like a credible case could be made for continued legal discrimination in a religious context, especially when there is a close church tie and consistent history of a practice. You would then see a diversity of practices emerge even within the evangelical world, and over time this might work out amicably. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, just observing that there everyone doesn’t have to take the same path and there may be more than one legally acceptable model.

    1. I’m never sure how to read Hope. If anything, I assumed that it wasn’t as conservative as its RCA cousin in your neck of the woods (Northwestern), but much of that is based on secondhand, not exactly dispassionate accounts from distant friends and family who went both directions.

      1. In my neck of the woods their cousin and the RCA itself are the liberals by default, which probably motivates them to be more conservative on the national scene. Locally that conservatism is not so visible; the things that loom large are faculty and students openly participating in dialogues occurring in the RCA that most other Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic churches in the upper midwest tend to see as coffin nails for orthodoxy if they are allowed to occur at all. But this is a historically and culturally unique situation. Ethnic confessional identities here result in a type of segregation I’ve never seen or heard of existing anywhere else in the US since the 1950s-60s. That adds a lot to anxiety levels over church and political issues. What is at stake for the midwestern Dutch churches in particular is their essence and identity. Once they started seeing the larger culture as inhospitable to their practices of piety, then almost any kind of change that seems to conform to that larger culture is viscerally felt as secularization, impiety, assimilation, and deracination. The reformation scholar William Bouwsma had a pretty good description of how this was felt 500 years ago, and it’s still going on. Gene Heideman’s The Practice of Piety gets into this pretty deep for the midwestern RCA churches — somewhat sub-scholarly, but full of good primary material if you haven’t read it.

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