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Facing the Apocalypse: The REAP lawsuit and Moderate Evangelical Universities | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Three young adults posing for a picture, dressed for prom, with the young man on the right wearing a rainbow crown.
Baylor’s Gay Prom. Image via Baylor University Gamma Alpha Upsilon.

As reported in an earlier post, 33 former and current college and seminary students – under the auspices of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) – have filed a class action lawsuit seeking “to put an end to the U.S. Department of Education’s complicity in the abuses and unsafe conditions thousands of LGBTQ+ students endure at hundreds of taxpayer-funded, religious colleges and universities.”

For hardline fundamentalist schools the strategy seems to be pretty clear, and straight (pun intended) from the Christian Right playbook: double down on anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination while simultaneously claiming that this lawsuit is further evidence that they and other true Christians are victims of atheistic persecution and an intolerant “woke culture.” 

But as I noted in the earlier post, the REAP lawsuit is a much more difficult moment for moderate evangelical colleges and universities. For years administrators at these schools have been playing to two starkly different audiences at once. Internally, they reassure faculty and LGBTQ+ students that they are very sympathetic, and that change is coming soon, once the older generation of evangelicals has passed. But externally, they repeatedly reassure their conservative constituency (donors and parents) that they are holding and will hold to a firm “biblical line” when it comes to matters pertaining to sexual orientation.

Responding to my post, a faculty member at a moderate evangelical school submitted (anonymously) this comment:

You are spot on with the “two audiences strategy,” which a moderate can moderate in moderate times and even feel that s/he is offering a mediating service and “holding the center.” But when the choice becomes stark, and the center is not on offer by either constituent group, then the true colors must be flown. Well, we are here now . . . and in the context of massive enrollment crises at these moderate institutions (their two audiences are parting ways, and heading to other institutions of higher education). What will the Apocalypse reveal on this one about the true nature of moderate protestant Christian colleges/universities?

Great question. And toward answering that question, we have reports from three schools – all three of which have current and former students who are plaintiffs in the REAP lawsuit — that give hints as to the “true nature” of moderate evangelical schools.  

Seattle Pacific University

As reported on the Roys Report, 72% of the faculty at Seattle Pacific University (SPU) voted to approve a motion declaring no confidence in the Board of Trustees  after the trustees refused to revise its policy that forbids the hiring of LGBTQ+ individuals while also declining to modify its statement on human sexuality (which establishes that the only allowable expression of sexuality is “in the context of the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.”) 

And it’s not just the faculty. As noted in the Roys Report article, Leah Duff – a senior at Seattle Pacific who understands herself to be queer – has announced that “the students and alumni are planning a campaign to discourage donations to the school, cut its ties to community organizations, and work to decrease enrollment at the school.” 

That’s a remarkable response, and absolutely not one that the SPU administration wants to hear. Of course, while (a good portion of) the faculty and students make up one audience, there is that other fundamentalist audience that SPU has been attending to for years and years. To get a feel for that audience, just scroll down to the comments in response to this story. Here are a few lowlights:

  • “I am sorry to hear this once Biblical school has hired so many woke Professors.”
  • “God hates all things LGBTQ.”
  • “I am a Christian and lifelong resident of the Seattle area. I say good for the SPU Board but sad they have so many faculty with debased minds.”

Baylor University

From the Pacific Northwest to the heart of Texas we go. Baylor University has two students – one (Veronica Penales) who defines as queer and the other (Jake Picker) as bisexual — who have joined the REAP lawsuit, arguing that the university treats their “existence like there is something inherently wrong with us” while doing nothing in response to complaints of hate speech directed at LGBTQ+ students. More than this, the university has repeatedly refused to recognize the unofficial LGBTQ+ Gamma Alpha Upsilon club as an official student organization.

Interestingly, earlier this year both the Baylor Faculty and Student Senate passed resolutions supporting the chartering of Gamma Alpha Upsilon. In response, the Board of Regents chair and vice-chairs met with the student body president, the Faculty Senate chair, and the president of Gamma Alpha Upsilon to discuss the faculty and student resolutions, a discussion that the chair of the Faculty Senate described as “unprecedented” and “remarkable.” But as of yet, no action has been taken.

And just last weekend Gamma Alpha Epsilon – with the support of a donor – held its first gay prom at a local park, which attracted approximately 150 people, one of whom “said that this was the first time he ever felt affirmed while at Baylor.” 

But as Picker noted, the Gay Prom doesn’t change the fact that LGBTQ+ students still feel as if they are not truly welcome at Baylor: “I shouldn’t have to choose my religion over my sexuality. We [LGBTQ+ students] want to grow in our Christian faith too.”

Messiah University

And now we go to south-central Pennsylvania, and Messiah University (MU). On the evening of April 08 the College Democrats hosted an hour-long Zoom conversation with MU senior and plaintiff Rachel Held about REAP’s lawsuit v. the U.S. Department of Education. Held was charming and self-deprecatory, and the young woman who chaired the session (I did not catch her name) was remarkably poised and supportive. One of the attendees made reference to what a “huge event” this was on campus, with a large group in virtual attendance. The whole session is worth watching, but here are a few highlights:

  • (start 3:21) Held was asked to explain what started on the road toward getting involved in this lawsuit: “I was an R.A., and as one of the steps to becoming an R.A. you have to go through something called Carousel Night, where they split you into groups. It’s basically a group interview. One of the rooms at Carousel Night [at least when I went through] is the Values Continuum, where they have a chalkboard in the room, where they go from agree to disagree. They’ll ask you questions, and then you have to place yourself where you fall on that spectrum, and they will ask you why. One of the questions we were asked in this room is whether or not we think that LGBTQ students should be allowed to hold leadership positions. Just the fact that that was something that was up for debate wasn’t something I had ever thought about or anticipated happening at a place that felt so welcoming, like Messiah. And that’s something that stuck with me.”
  • (start 19:09): Held was asked what changes she would like to see: “At Messiah, I would really love to see their specific policy changed . . . Currently, any student experiencing same-sex attraction is expected to refrain from acting on that while they’re a student. I think that kind of double standard of people in straight relationships can, you know, make out in the middle of campus, and sure, we might get uncomfortable watching that, but it would be allowed, whereas a couple in a same-sex relationship can’t do the same thing. I feel like I would like to see that policy changed, or removed completely would be even better in my opinion.”
  • (start 44:02): Session chair: “I’ve had conversations with plenty of faculty here on campus and even some of the administration who are completely affirming of the LGBTQ+ community. But they are also in a bit of a bind just because of the policies . . . they are a little bit hamstrung. So it’s a difficult place to be . . . That’s why it’s interesting and it’s great that – not great – that this lawsuit is happening because . . . the change is not going to come from within Messiah. It’s almost going to have to come from outside forces putting pressure on them.”

At one moderate evangelical university, a faculty vote of no confidence in the Board because of their anti-LGBTQ+ policies and statements. At a second, faculty/student resolutions for an LGBTQ+ organization to be given official standing. At a third, a student organization pressing the point that  LGBTQ+ students have been rendered second-class by institutional policies and practices.

All of this makes clear that different moderate evangelical universities are responding differently. Seattle Pacific and Messiah do not (at least at the moment) seem to be heading down the same path. 

And yet, as our anonymous contributor noted, and as the events at all three schools would suggest, the institutional approach of playing to two different audiences at once is not going to hold. The cultural and generational shift when it comes to the acceptance of LGBTQ+-identified individuals, the REAP lawsuit, and serious enrollment challenges: all of this renders the two audience strategy increasingly untenable. 

For moderate evangelical universities, riding out the apocalypse does not seem to be an option.