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Eastern Mennonite University Delays Decision on Same-Sex Relationships

Meanwhile, current policy against same-sex relationships among faculty will not be enforced.
Eastern Mennonite University Delays Decision on Same-Sex Relationships
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Trustees at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Virginia voted to delay a formal decision on a policy against same-sex relationships, effectively allowing faculty to violate the current policy indefinitely.

The university is one of 120 members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), whose members include Biola University, Wheaton College, and Gordon College. EMU's board deferred to ongoing conversations in the Mennonite Church USA in its June 20 statement:

We reaffirm EMU's mission—to prepare students to serve and lead in a diverse global society—and EMU's role as a university that fully engages the difficult questions of our time and welcomes diverse perspectives and experiences into the conversation. Out of respect for EMU's relationship with Mennonite Church USA and its ongoing discernment of human sexuality, we defer action on formally changing EMU's policy on hiring employees in covenanted same-sex relationships. The November 2013 board decision to suspend personnel actions related to the current hiring policy will remain in effect as the discernment process continues.

CT previously reported that faculty would not be penalized for violating the policy during the review process. In a November 16 motion obtained by CT, EMU trustees unanimously instruct that "between now and June 2014, EMU will suspend taking any human resource actions based on hiring practices that are currently under review."

This means "some professors in same-sex relationships could keep their jobs or be hired" during the review period, Inside Higher Education reported.

The CCCU declined to comment on the board's choice to delay the decision.

"The CCCU does not have a statement on or speculation regarding the deferred decision," said Pamela Jones, CCCU vice president for communications, in an email.

In a 2001 report, a CCCU ad hoc task force on human sexuality emphasized the church's historical opposition to same-sex marriage but also encouraged "each member institution of the CCCU to decide its stance on this difficult issue explicitly and deliberately":

While there can be no question that we face challenges in applying the scriptural view in contemporary and pluralistic Western culture, there is a fair consensus that the historic stance of the Church, grounded in the unambiguous teaching of Scripture, cannot be explained away. Arguments that there are other ways to read the scriptural witness on this matter or on the broader vision for sexuality and sexual ethics have not rendered the traditional judgment irrelevant.

Stanton Jones, author of the report and provost and psychology professor at Wheaton College, noted "the peculiar challenges" faced by Christian colleges:

We are all painfully aware of the trend for religiously-affiliated (or religiously-identified) institutions of higher education to lose their religious identities. The leaders of those formerly sibling institutions either failed to see (or did not care to respond to the recognition) that our institutional religious identities are fragile indeed, capable of being sustained only through creative leadership, constant rearticulation of our mission, and through the providential care of God. The issue of homosexuality appears to be one of, if not the "issue of our day," an/the issue on which our institutional identities are being tested. Institutions will avoid dealing with this issue at their great risk.

Students at CCCU member universities may participate in "Best Semester" study abroad programs through the CCCU, where they agree to a behavioral statement promising to avoid "sexual immorality."

At EMU, the just-concluded six-month listening process began in January with the goal of reviewing "current hiring policies and practices with respect to individuals in covenanted same-sex relationships."

The process, intended to engage members of the EMU community, including current students, alumni, faculty, staff, donors, and church leaders, concluded with the board meeting June 20. In May, the president's cabinet prepared a list of recommendations to present to the trustees, who met over the weekend to reach a decision.

More than 7,000 people responded to a survey the president's cabinet sent to students, faculty, church leaders, and others during the listening period, and 300 individuals participated in on-campus meetings, according to an EMU statement.

EMU president Loren Swartzendruber said feedback was "divergent and often passionate."

"We never expected to see consensus on this matter," he said in a statement. "EMU's role as a university is to grapple with the difficult questions of our time."

The school would not be the first in the CCCU to hire faculty in same-sex relationships, according to an FAQ page published by EMU in January:

Many colleges in the Catholic and mainline Protestant Christian traditions allow for same-sex persons to be employed. In addition, some colleges have adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" practice, including some who are members of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities.

EMU currently requires faculty members to sign the Community Lifestyle Commitment, which asks faculty to "refrain from sexual relationships outside of marriage." The commitment does not mention same-sex relationships, or homosexuality in general.

"A growing number of EMU students (gay and straight), like young adults in the larger culture, do not see the matter of same-sex relationships as a significant issue," the school's FAQ page says. "Our students, for the most part, want to participate in the church and some do not think that persons in same-sex relationships should be barred from church membership or from employment in church colleges."

The university's current lifestyle statement for students, adopted in 2001, reads in part:

I recognize that some social practices are harmful to me, as well as harmful or offensive to others. Therefore, respecting the values of others and the mission of Eastern Mennonite University, I recognize my responsibility as a member of the community to refrain from sexual relationships outside of marriage, sexual harassment and abuse, pornography, acts of violence, abusive or demeaning language and the use of illegal drugs. Recognizing that EMU supports nonuse of alcohol and tobacco, I will respect and abide by the university policy that prohibits the use of alcohol and tobacco on campus or at university functions and the misuse of alcohol off campus.

The university said in an online statement there is no definite timetable to make a decision.

CT noted when EMU came under fire for its policy on same-sex relationships in 2004, when it announced the listening period in November, and on loosening of denominational ties among Christian colleges and universities.

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