Lawyers on both sides say the lawsuit could be historic. Two former students of Fuller Theological Seminary were expelled because of their same-sex marriages, and each of them, claiming discrimination, is asking for more than $1 million in compensation. The court’s decision in the case could set a precedent furthering LGBT rights—or could reaffirm the religious liberty of Christian colleges and seminaries to set their own moral standards.
Court rulings are one aspect of a broad cultural change creating challenges for evangelical institutions. Paul Southwick, the attorney representing the two former Fuller students, pointed out his legal argument won’t be based on the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage, but Obergefell v. Hodges did partly precipitate this conflict.
“Now that it has been legalized nationwide and young people are getting married, I would expect to see this continue,” Southwick said, “because the majority of the people who are LGBT are also Christian.” About 55 percent of LGBT people are Christian, according to a Gallup poll.
Schools affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) have been wrestling with how to best serve LGBT students while maintaining commitments to their traditional teachings on sexuality. At the same time, they want to avoid any possible public controversy, since controversy can be devastating to institutions in precarious financial positions. Some of the work schools have done to maintain this tight balance can be seen in the sexual conduct policies in student handbooks, which CCCU schools have been carefully crafting and re-crafting over the past few years.
It’s hard to “do justice to the nuance and thoughtfulness that many of these institutions have put into writing these foundational documents,” said Mark Yarhouse, director of Wheaton College’s Sexual and Gender Identity Institute. They “feel misunderstood around the topic,” he added.
Many have found that maintaining the status quo has required them to update their language. A survey of sexuality policies at Christian colleges and universities shows lots of definitions and clarifications that wouldn’t have seemed necessary in the past. Fuller’s definition of marriage as a “covenant union between one man and one woman” is one example. Pepperdine University, similarly, “affirms that sexual relationships are designed by God to be expressed solely within a marriage between husband and wife,” adding that this “view of sexuality and marriage is rooted in the Genesis account of creation and is maintained consistently throughout Scripture.” At Colorado Christian University, a student is prohibited from “participating in a relationship, outside of heterosexual marriage, involving sexual activity”—a very traditional stance that wouldn’t have required the word heterosexual in the past.
Some schools have felt the need to be more specific about what is prohibited. The student handbook at College of the Ozarks puts an extra emphasis on gender identity. It says that “sex assigned at birth is a person’s God-given, objective gender, whether or not it differs from their internal sense of ‘gender identity’ ” and “misuses of God’s gift of human sexuality will be understood to include, but not be limited to gender expression inconsistent with sex assigned at birth (transgender).” Messiah College has a policy that requires students to refrain from “ ‘same-sex sexual expression’ as it is embodied in culturally contextual practices (e.g., identifying as a couple or exhibiting expressions of physical intimacy).”
Other schools have adjusted their policies to emphasize the equity of their moral rules in the student handbook, showing they apply equally to gay and straight students alike. Westmont College in Southern California says it “will not condone . . . sexual relations outside of marriage between persons of opposite sex or persons of the same sex.” Northwest Christian University, in Oregon, sets expectations for the behavior of married and non-
married students without ever referencing sexual orientation.
For LGBT students, language like this “makes a huge difference,” according to Erin Green, a co-executive director of Brave Commons, a group that advocates for LGBT students at Christian colleges. Green, who’s critical of Christian college LGBT policies overall, said that “having language that doesn’t stigmatize” or “isolate” LGBT students is essential for their well-being.
Some schools have put concern for LGBT students front and center in their policies. Abilene Christian University’s policy “affirms the full humanity and dignity of all human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” Calvin University has a webpage for frequently asked questions on LGBT issues. It says, “We believe that homosexual orientation is not a sin, and we strive to love our gay, lesbian, and bisexual students as ourselves,” before affirming that “physical sexual intimacy has its proper place in the context of heterosexual marriage.” Anti-harassment policies that specifically mention sexual orientation and gender identity have also become common.
Shirley Hoogstra, president of the CCCU, notes that policies are only one aspect of a school’s relationship to LGBT students.
“While policies are important,” she said, “they don’t tell the whole story—what’s more important is the story of how CCCU institutions are caring for and developing students. It’s a holistic approach that’s much bigger than any one policy and encompasses the variety of resources and support available to students.”
Whatever the tensions among different constituencies at a religious institution, Hoogstra thinks the common commitment to shared values is stronger.
“Students, donors, faculty, and staff are at Christian colleges and universities because they love God and want to serve him faithfully,” she said. “CCCU campuses work hard to navigate living out their call to do both: care well for students and interpret Scripture faithfully.”
Hoogstra is concerned, though, about how these policies will be judged in court and how judges might interpret Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If the court rules that the clause prohibiting sex discrimination also prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, it could have far-reaching implications. The CCCU has advocated for legislation that would balance LGBT rights with the rights of religious institutions to establish their own codes of conduct. For now, that balance is up to courts and colleges writing policies.
LGBT students at Christian colleges often agree that policies are not the most important part of their experience of life as a student. Spencer Post, president of OUTLaw, an LGBT student group at the Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law, said he feels supported at Pepperdine because he’s surrounded by faculty and staff who “know me and are very supportive of me personally and professionally.”
At the same time, policies can decide whether or not an LGBT student is safe and can show students that the administration is thinking about them as an important part of the community. When Pepperdine approved an LGBT student group, some undergraduates considered it an important step. Mark Davis, dean of students, told the student newspaper that the creation of the organization was “a strong example of the administration’s commitment to listen to students, meet them in thoughtful conversation and prioritize our God-given calling to love and care for each of them.”
Wheaton director Yarhouse said Christian colleges will have to continue to work on crafting the best policies, responding to the changing legal arguments, and addressing the shifting concerns of college communities. The best approaches, he said, ensure that “students feel seen, heard, valued, and respected” while also clearly articulating Christian values.
“The best policies are positively framed,” he said. “It’s always helpful to frame ‘what do we believe and why’ from a positive standpoint because Christianity has something positive to say in these areas.”
The sometimes painstaking work of crafting policies, however, may not prevent lawsuits or guarantee that courts look favorably on religious schools’ efforts to establish their own standards.
“How policy is framed,” Yarhouse said, “and how it ends up being adjudicated is yet to be determined.”
Liam Adams is a reporter in Colorado.
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