The Litmus Test
An Iowa church asked Calvin trustees to examine Sandberg's work and clarify college policy. The board found the play and a related blog were "essentially advocacy" of gay relationships and "unacceptable for a professor at Calvin College."
The board's memo affirms the CRC's position that homosexual orientation is not sinful but homosexual practice is. Though alternative views may be aired, it reads, "The position of the church and the college should be clearly and sympathetically presented."
Chairman Bastian Knoppers emphasized that the board did not intend to circumvent policy processes but to clarify existing policy. At the same time, he said, "we believe we are also accountable to churches and the denomination."
Sandberg insists she did not set out to advocate, but was guided by Calvin's academic tradition and the CRC's own policy calling for more outreach to gays.
"To me it was the cornerstone of the institution—the idea of pursuing truth in the love of Christ," Sandberg said.
Administrators say they honor that tradition but walk a tightrope between church doctrine and welcoming gay students.
"Parents continually ask, 'Is my gay son or daughter going to be safe here at Calvin?' " said provost Claudia Beversluis. "Some parents say, 'We want a really conservative Christian college, and you don't seem to be that.' "
Anna, a bisexual Calvin student who asked that her last name not be used, said she fears a chilling effect.
"This memo silences discussion," she said. "You can't deal with the issue unless you're talking about it."
At a recent campus forum, eminent scholars said Calvin faculty members always have been able to speak their minds on social and church issues. They noted that Calvin defended the evolutionary writings of astronomy professor Howard Van Till in the 1980s against accusations of heresy.
"It has been the envy of every other conservative Christian college in the nation," said Nicholas Wolterstorff, a retired philosopher at Calvin and Yale Divinity School.
George Marsden, a retired historian at Calvin and the University of Notre Dame, cautioned against making lists of positions faculty may not advocate. Militarism and abortion could also be considered confessional issues, he said.
"There are too many possible issues," Marsden said. "You're stirring up controversy you don't have to have."
But Calvin president Gaylen Byker said if it is determined Calvin's policy on homosexuality flows from the historic confessions faculty must sign, trustees acted properly.
"My sense is we ought to have a broadly based discussion of … the relationship between being a confessional college and academic freedom," Byker said.
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The Grand Rapids Press also reported Tuesday that Calvin College officials are not withdrawing the memo regarding homosexuality, but plan to study how Christian Reformed Church teachings relate to academic freedom.
Previous articles on Calvin College can be found in the education special section, including:
Values Clash | Calvin College's denominational requirements make diversity a challenge. (December 20, 2007)
Bush Visit to Calvin College Exposes Divisions | Commencement address invigorates debates about the Reformed relationship to American politics and evangelicalism. (May 20, 2005)
Calvin College on U2 | College class on U2 explores religious influence of a rock band. (February 23, 2005)