Wheaton loosens restrictions on dancing, drinking, and smoking after discovering legal requirement
At 2,025 words, Wheaton College's new "Community Covenant" is three-and-a-half times longer than the 578-word "Statement of Responsibilities" it replaces. But what was removed from the Statement of Responsibilities will attract the most attention.

Announced Monday, the Community Covenant drops the school's ban on "most forms of social dancing" and allows faculty, staff, and graduate students to consume alcohol and tobacco.

"We initially undertook the job of reviewing the [Statement of Responsibilities] with the intent of changing as little as possible," trustee Bud Knoedler says in a letter from college President Duane Litfin. "We quickly found that, when you begin to 'tweak' a 30-year-old policy, you quickly run into huge changes in culture and attitudes among evangelical Christians, both on and off campus, as well as vastly different student attitudes, needs and pressures. In addition, we found it necessary to address several legal issues, which are totally new to us since the present [Statement of Responsibilities] was written. We quickly realized that a total rewrite seemed inevitable, and necessary."

The largest legal issue is the 1991 Illinois Right to Privacy in the Workplace Act, Litfin explains. The state law says businesses can't discriminate against applicants or employees if "the individual uses lawful products off the premises of the employer during non-working hours." If a ban on drinking and smoking was a "matter of clear and consistent religious requirement," Litfin says, the school might have been able to claim an exemption. "But short of such an ironclad argument, no such prohibition appears to be legal under Illinois law," he says.

In fact, the Community Covenant acknowledges that "the Bible requires moderation in the use of alcohol, not abstinence. … Thus the question of alcohol consumption represents a prime opportunity for Christians to exercise their freedom responsibly, carefully, and in Christ-like love."

All Wheaton College functions and locations will be alcohol-free and tobacco-free, the covenant says, and "adult members of the College community … will avoid the serving or consumption of alcohol in any situation in which undergraduate members of the Wheaton College family are or are likely to be present."

The covenant also says that on-campus dances must have official sponsorship from the college, and that "all members of the Wheaton College community will take care to avoid any entertainment or behavior, on or off campus, which may be immodest, sinfully erotic, or harmfully violent."

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"Overall it's not too much to say that this new community covenant was received with enthusiasm," Litfin says. "No such document will ever be perfect, and in a community as diverse as Wheaton College we will never attain complete unanimity. But this covenant has brought us as close as we are likely to get."

Wheaton isn't the first school to relax parts of its conduct code. "In recent years, many Christian colleges have relaxed certain rules in response to student demands, often regarding the right to dance on or off campus," Beliefnet reported in 2000. "Other rules have been tightened in response to new temptations."

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