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State's Christian colleges hold on to same-sex restrictions

by Jaime Adame | August 23, 2015 at 4:00 a.m.

SILOAM SPRINGS -- Conduct policies for employees at John Brown University and other Christian colleges and universities in Arkansas have not changed after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June declaring same-sex marriage a constitutional right.

"We will continue to do what we've been doing, which is that we firmly believe that marriage is reserved for a man and a woman in a covenant before God," Chip Pollard, president of John Brown University, told faculty and staff members at a gathering on the nondenominational school's Siloam Springs campus last week.

But for leaders of Christian schools, statements affirming long-held principles now frequently are followed by expressions of wariness about potential changes in the law that could affect their operations.

"We're working at local, regional, national levels trying to figure out the best way to protect religious liberties at schools such as ours while at the same time articulating respect for those that might disagree with us," said Pollard, a graduate of Harvard Law School, who also acknowledged the potential for a rift within Christian higher education.

Since 2013, Pollard has served as chairman of the board of directors for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, a Washington, D.C.-based association with a $12 million budget that counts more than 120 members in North America.

The three Arkansas institutions on the council's membership roster described to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette policies that exclude the hiring of people in same-sex marriages. Policy tenets also prohibit sex outside of marriage for all couples.

Elsewhere, a pair of council member universities affiliated with the Mennonite Church in July revised nondiscrimination policies to allow for the hiring of workers in same-sex marriages. The universities making the change continue to have conduct codes prohibiting sex outside of marriage.

The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities issued a statement July 28 describing a "deliberative and consultative process" involving calls to the presidents of member schools "to discuss this issue" in response to inquiries about the policy changes at Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University.

Then, on Aug. 13, Union University -- an evangelical Christian university and a member of the council for nearly 25 years -- announced it was withdrawing from the association because "our advocacy for Christ-centered higher education means that we must stand with institutions that share our commitments.

"Regrettably, that is no longer the case with the CCCU," the announcement from the university stated, repeating remarks made by Union University's president, Samuel Oliver, in a letter to the council.

Pollard told John Brown faculty and staff members he was "disappointed" over Union University's quick decision, although he added that "everybody has their own pressures."

Religious organizations -- under the First Amendment and an exception to federal prohibitions on employment discrimination -- "have the right to hire who they want to hire and have the right to hire folks whose religion matches theirs," said Robin Maril, senior legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, a national advocacy group for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

John Brown's policy invokes religion in disallowing sexual intimacy between people who are not married or people of the same sex, stating that such behavior "does not honor God's intention for human beings."

Maril said the Human Rights Campaign had no comment specifically on hiring practices at Christian colleges and universities. Yet there remains "great uncertainty" about how laws might change or lawsuits might be filed to affect such schools, said Carl Esbeck, a professor emeritus of law at the University of Missouri who has written frequently about religious liberty and once served as director for the Center for Law and Religious Freedom, a Christian advocacy group.

Universities are employers, typically provide housing and sometimes operate businesses like a bookstore expected to provide public accommodations, Esbeck said, adding that they also may rely on governmental funding.

"They may be just fine at one or two levels, and yet get into lawsuits and other forms of administrative entanglement at the third level," Esbeck said.

Esbeck also noted that sexual orientation and gender identity have become key parts of nondiscrimination ordinances in some communities. While Esbeck said many such ordinances have religious exemptions, he said the exemptions could be written broadly or narrowly.

Danielle Weatherby, an assistant professor of law at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance in Fayetteville exempts religious schools from compliance.

In Arkansas, Harding University's policy explicitly states: "Employees are prohibited from being married to any person of the same sex." The university, which enrolls roughly 6,000 students, joined the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities only last month, according to David Crouch, the university's director of public relations.

Asked if the university was committed to the council, Crouch wrote that it was "as long as the organization's mission and goals are compatible with Harding's mission," adding that "the response of a few individual schools will not impact Harding's membership."

Thomas Jones, president of Williams Baptist College, which enrolls about 550 students, wrote in an email that the college would take a wait-and-see approach to its membership in the council.

"The decisions and processes of the Board of Directors in the next few weeks will determine our future commitment and involvement with the CCCU," Jones wrote.

Like many Christian schools, John Brown's conduct policies apply to employees and students.

Despite the policies, Matthias Roberts, a 2013 graduate of John Brown University, said his experience as a student was generally positive, even after acknowledging his homosexuality to a few faculty members and administrators.

"I had a lot of good, constructive positive conversations with people who do truly care for the students," said Roberts, now a graduate student in Seattle who writes frequently about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in Christian churches.

Another former John Brown student, Jacob Little, remained closeted while earning a bachelor's degree in 2009 and a master's degree in 2011. He now lives openly as a gay man and a Christian.

"I would say, my first two years especially were a little bit more hostile toward homosexuality at the school," Little said, recalling how "ex-gay" speakers would talk to students about so-called reparative therapy aimed at changing a person's sexual orientation.

The American Psychological Association and other health groups do not support such practices, and some states have recently enacted bans protecting minors from them.

"Ultimately, that message was pretty damaging in my life," said Little, who with some alumni helped found a group called OneJBU as an "underground support network" for any students seeking different perspectives on issues of sexuality, adding that many students and faculty members are sympathetic to the group.

But a request by OneJBU to have an on-campus event was denied by Pollard, Little said. A policy focused on lifelong celibacy is "very damaging and dehumanizing to a gay student," Little added.

Roberts said he does not anticipate JBU changing its policies on same-sex relationships, calling the school's position "really unfortunate." Roberts said he wasn't aware of any large Christian universities changing their standards, though he noted that a few large evangelical, nondenominational Christian churches within the past year have revised their views to accept same-sex marriage.

"I think that's a trend we're going to see happen more and more," Roberts said. "But with that, there's also -- I see a lot of people kind of digging in their heels."

Jones, president of Williams Baptist College, which is owned and operated by the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, wrote in an email that the college has had no discussions to amend its policy relating to sexuality.

"Though obviously we differ in our position with some cultural movements, we believe that the cornerstone of a Christian sexual ethic is faithfulness in marriage between one man and one woman and abstinence in singleness," Jones wrote.

The Supreme Court decision "has clearly impacted the political landscape in Christian Higher Education with uncertainty and tension."

He added: "It is our hope that future court decisions will not impede the current freedoms we practice administering our institution under a high scriptural standard."

Pollard spoke with restrained language about the wording of the Supreme Court's response to the issue of same-sex marriage.

"There is good language in the Supreme Court case about the importance of religious freedom," Pollard said. But, he added, "as the dissent pointed out, there wasn't much discussion at all about free exercise."

"That's something we're cautiously looking at," Pollard said.

As far as dealing with others in the Christian community, Pollard said John Brown would respond "with gentleness and respect, with truth and grace."

"We've got to hold them both together," Pollard said. "And right now it's really hard to hold them together because everybody's pushing on both sides, to be all about truth or all about grace, and that may be hard."

Metro on 08/23/2015

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