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:
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.)
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.”