Religious Liberty in Christian Universities: Responding to the ERLC list

The past few days have certainly been ones for lists. First Kevin DeYoung posts 40 questions for those support same-sex marriage. Then several others post 40 questions for those opposed. Then there are lists of responses to both sets of questions. These are not likely to change many minds.

For those following such discussions, I’d call your attention to two sources of great interest to me. First, Harold Heie has launched another Respectful Conversation; this one on Christian Faithfulness and Human Sexuality. If it is like the past two years’ series on Politics and Evangelical Futures (respectively), it should be worth bookmarking. Another source I’ve found very enlightening comes from Southern Nazarene church historian/theologian Tim Crutcher. He’s been unpacking a very interesting series titled “A Rose By Any Other Name: A Radical Moderate Approach to Marriage” on the church’s response to same-sex marriage (the first post is here and you can click through to parts two and three).

ERLCMy purpose in this post, however, is to engage an argument put forward by Phillip Bethancourt, Executive Vice President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. A former administrator at Southern Seminary, he addressed The Top 10 Religious Liberty Threats for Christian Higher Education. I don’t know Dr. Betancourt but I know the ERLC has done some good work. Their president Russell Moore has been exemplary as a voice of reason in recent months and my friend Karen Swallow Prior is a Fellow at ERLC.

Bethancourt’s ten points are similar to many I have read in recent years and especially since the Obergefell decision on same-sex marriage (e.g., this summary in Inside Higher Ed). I want to address his concerns carefully because they are important issues.

In some cases, I think his points are one-sided and that the challenges are even more complex than he suggests. In other cases, there is a danger of wolf-whistling. In still others, his facts are not quite right. I’ll address his arguments one by one.

1. Accreditation Issues: He raises concerns that the regional accrediting associations will come after Christian Universities.  I addressed some of this worry in a post I wrote on Gordon College, which he uses as an example. In fact, he says that the Northeast Association launched “a probe” of Gordon after last summer’s letter to President Obama from their president (and others). The NEASC clearly stated in March that the request asking Gordon to review their policy was a routine response to being in the news and not an issue of institutional accreditation. As I wrote, institutional identity is central to accrediting bodies and they are likely to protect it. In addition some accreditors actually come from Christian institutions — I just learned that one of the VPs of the Northwest Commission is the former VPAA at Seattle Pacific University. I’m sure he’s not alone among the accrediting regions.

2. Tax-Exempt Status: Much of this concern stems from an exchange between Justice Alito and Solicitor General Virrilli dealing with the 1983 Bob Jones decision removing tax exempt status from the university because of its ban on interracial dating. If Christian institutions ban homosexual behavior on campus, won’t they face the same scenario? Many people have grabbed hold of this interchange, but I don’t think the comparison with Bob Jones holds. Randall Balmer’s analysis shows that the BJU tax case was directly related to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. President Nixon had ordered the IRS denied tax exemption to schools that segregated in light of the Act’s designation of race as a protected class in federal law. Sexual Orientation isn’t a federally protected class (although it is in some states). Furthermore, nothing in Obergefell deals with discrimination against LGBTQ individuals but instead focuses on state licensure of marriages.

3. Financial Issues: Bethancourt focuses on two precarious situations at the federal level. What if religious schools no longer have access to pell grants or subsidized loans? Financial issues are the largest challenge to Christian institutions whether that’s seen as a religious freedom issue or not. But the notion that federal changes would come about removing by Christian schools’ access seems both politically and legally unlikely. The Supreme Court struck down laws banning same-sex consensual behavior in 2003 in the Lawrence decision. If that were determinative for Christian institutions, we would have already seen such restrictions suggested at the policy level. There are larger financial implications of same-sex policies at Christian schools. The largest may be a potential loss of students from a generation more amenable to SSM. For institutions that are heavily tuition dependent, not addressing sexual orientation could present a real long-term problem.

4. Donor Issues: He argues that loss of tax exemption (#2) would lessen charitable giving. More important, there is a risk that donors might be shamed for giving to institutions portrayed as discriminatory. This is a potential risk, but not necessarily a large one. Most CCCU donors are small gifts or life estates. It also is quite plausible that a more open and affirming Christian university would find itself the darling of Gen-X alums who are more progressive and have some measure of disposable income.

5. External Relations Issues: This is my primary point of agreement with Bethancourt. Christian Universities are increasingly finding themselves caught in an untenable situation. One the one hand are traditionalist supporters and denominational groups who expect fidelity to past positions. On the other are younger alums (like the OneWheaton group) who are advocating for changes to university policy. Both constituent groups are critical and figuring out how to engage both is going to be increasingly difficult. This isn’t really a religious freedom issue but it is important nonetheless.

6. Student Issues: This section deals with issues of student lifestyle restrictions. How can schools prohibit homosexual behavior? Again, these are issues already raised in Lawrence. These require schools to look closely at their lifestyle policies to make sure they are properly connected to institutional identity. It’s worth noting that Baylor announced an adjustment to their policy last week changing their prohibition to premarital sex without singling out homosexual behavior. Other schools will likely quickly follow suit. Bethancourt also discusses issues with married students and student housing. This is one area with direct Obergefell impact. As I suggested in my earlier post on the impending court decision, if students are legally married by the state, this is one accommodation Christian Institutions might make. An alternative strategy is to privatize apartments near campus so that they are no longer college housing (which impacts the financial issues in #3).

7. Community Issues: In this section, Bethancourt correctly acknowledges that local media will not carefully nuance the college’s position. Not knowing the rationale for the traditional position, media and community figures might take the most negative view, impacting town-gown relationships. He uses Gordon College’s issues with the Lynn school district as an example of not being able to place student teachers. Two points here. First, Lynn is not GC’s “local school district” but is about 15 miles away. Second, there have been some early indications that Lynn overreached. This is a good reminder that the tensions between religious freedom and non-discrimination ordinances will require a lot of back and forth as we figure out the right balance.

8. Recruiting and Retention Issues: In this section, he raises a host of issues that involve student attitudes, faculty recruiting, and institutional reputation. He frames the concerns around the institution’s ability to not accept gay students and concerns of faculty worrying about long-term career issues. I would argue that we have long been accepting gay students (knowingly or unknowingly). This is why the handbook issues in #6 are important. It is also true that the millennial generation is far more likely to be supportive of SSM. It may be much harder to recruit those students to schools that do not address this important questions. When it comes to faculty issues, most faculty already face career choices about Christian schools and the assumptions made about them as candidates for other positions. I’m not sure that issues of same-sex marriage change that.

9. Employment Issues: This combines very real concerns about hiring faculty and staff with those of graduates having a hard time being hired because of the stance of the school. The second of these is a restatement of #7 and again is true to the same extent small Christian colleges already face. It’s possible that employers now hiring Christian college graduates might change their policy in light of Obergefell, but it’s hard to imagine this is a large number. The primary issue Betancourt raises here is about hiring faculty and staff. This is the most important issue on his list and is the one most directly impacted by the Supreme Court decision. It is the most urgent matter for Christian Institutions to carefully engage.

10. Doctrinal Issues: Bethancourt concludes by suggesting that schools solidify their institutional statements of faith. Again, he links this to the Supreme Court decision and I’d argue that this is not something impacted by Obergefell. He suggests that schools without a clear doctrinal statement are at greater risk of institutional crisis. Again, I would suggest an alternative. Wesleyan, Pietist, and Pentecostal institutions — more focused on experience, discipleship, and the leading of the Spirit — might actually be better positioned to avoid crisis that those institutions driven by doctrinal statements.

Here is how Bethancourt closes his article:

For those who are invested in the future of Christian higher education, these are the top 10 areas where schools face religious liberty threats. Granted, all of these issues may not materialize—and certainly not all at the same school. But they are the areas with the most potential for risk.

As Christian colleges and seminaries look to the future, they must think through their strategy in each of these 10 categories to determine how they will overcome the religious liberty risks created by the recent Supreme Court marriage ruling.

I appreciate what he has attempted to do in this piece. Even though I think many of the points require more nuance, these are important issues (although not all are impacted by the recent decision).

At the same time, struggling over perceived threats to religious liberty seems a limited strategy for moving forward. My Wesleyanism is showing, but I’m far more encouraged by what happens in interpersonal engagement. While I was working on this post, I came across this story in the Washington Post. It reports on the new friendship between Robert Vander Plaats, founder of Iowa’s Family Leader (a conservative evangelical organization) and Donna Red Wing, founder of the One Iowa LGBT advocacy organization.

But when they ran into each other on the day the Supreme Court declared that same-sex couples could marry anywhere in the country, crossing paths between dueling interviews at a local TV station studio, they locked eyes.

And then they hugged.

It gives me reason for great hope. The next few years will be messy as we work through these various issues. But we are still confident that God is in control and the Spirit is working. That is what allows staunch opponents to find themselves in a hug.

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