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Whither Evangelical Colleges?: The LGBTQ+ Moment is Here | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Picture of graduating Seattle Pacific University Students being handed pride flags alongside their diplomas.
Graduating Seattle Pacific University students hand rainbow Pride flags to Interim President Pete Menjares while receiving their diplomas. Image via Religion News Service.

Fact #1: Approximately 2/3 of evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 35 now support same-sex marriage

Fact #2: Many or most evangelical colleges continue to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students, staff, and faculty. 

Put these two facts together, and it’s obvious that the moment of decision is nigh for many of these schools. Will they maintain their discriminatory policies, or will they abandon them? 

Before we look at two evangelical colleges that are at this moment embroiled in controversy regarding this issue, a little background is helpful.

As we reported here, here, and here, last March the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) filed a class-action lawsuit, charging that the U.S. Department of Education has failed to uphold Title IX by not protecting “sexual and gender minority students at taxpayer-funded” schools, including “private and religious educational institutions.” In failing to live up to its legal obligations, the Department of Education has left

students unprotected from the harms of conversion therapy, expulsion, denial of housing and healthcare, sexual and physical abuse and harassment, as well as the less visible but no less damaging, consequences of institutionalized shame, fear, anxiety, and loneliness.

The lawsuit continues to attract plaintiffs – originally there were 33, but now there are 40 – who attend or attended evangelical and fundamentalist educational institutions (plus a Mormon and a Seventh-Day Adventist school, as well as a fundamentalist preK-12th grade academy):

  • Azusa Pacific University (CA)
  • Baylor University (TX)
  • Bob Jones University (SC)
  • Brigham Young University (UT)
  • Cedarville University (OH)
  • Clarks Summit University (PA)
  • College of the Ozarks (MO)
  • Colorado Christian University (CO)
  • Covenant Christian Academy (TX)
  • Dordt University (IA)
  • Eastern University (PA)
  • Fuller Theological Seminary (CA)
  • George Fox University (OR)
  • Grace University (NE)
  • Indiana Wesleyan University (IN)
  • La Sierra University (CA)
  • Lee University (TN)
  • Liberty University (VA)
  • Lipscomb University (TN)
  • Messiah University (PA)
  • Moody Bible Institute (IL)
  • Nyack College (NY)
  • Oklahoma Baptist University (OK)
  • Regent University School of Law (VA)
  • Seattle Pacific University (WA)
  • Toccoa Falls College (GA)
  • Union University (TN)
  • Westmont College (CA)
  • York College (NE)

(Note: I have the dubious distinction of having taught at two of these schools.)

The REAP lawsuit is pointing to Bob Jones University [BJU] v. United States (1983) as its precedent. In that decision the Court asserted that BJU’s biblically-based ban on interracial dating meant that the school could not maintain its tax-exempt status, given that the government’s interest in prohibiting racial discrimination overrode the religious exemption claimed by BJU.

That is to say, REAP wants the Court to apply the same logic to questions of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Not surprisingly, Christian Right leaders are apocalyptic over this prospect. Here’s what Ken Ham had to say on Facebook:

As we at Answers in Genesis have warned, gay “marriage” was the door that opened the LGBTQ agenda. It ramps up more each day. And for those who profess Christianity who support such an agenda, “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law [God’s word], even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9).

In response I asked Ken two simple questions:

  • If racial discrimination is not allowable at institutions benefitting from tax monies – despite the raft of biblical arguments made in behalf of racial discrimination – then why should discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation be acceptable at such institutions?
  • Were the prayers of the millions of white evangelicals who used the Bible to support slavery and segregation, not to mention the prayers of contemporary Christian white supremacists and neo-Confederates, also an abomination before the Lord? 

Not surprisingly, no answer has been forthcoming.

The REAP lawsuit comes at a very challenging moment for evangelical colleges. On the one hand, many of their students and prospective students – not to mention many of their faculty members – find anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination to be not only nonsensical, but even anti-Christian. So administrators at many of these institutions, to quote the co-founder of Campus Pride, are actively seeking “to cloud this issue and come off as supportive [of LGBTQ students] because they know it’ll impact recruitment and admissions.”

But while seeking to placate students and faculty, these same administrators have to work overtime to reassure older evangelicals – parents and donors and board members and denominational officials – that they are holding a firm “biblical line,” which translates into maintaining discriminatory policies on the basis of sexual orientation. 

Two audiences. Reassuring words for the one, hardline guarantees for the other. 

Of course, this strategy – which is very much about trying to hold on until the older generation dies off – has obvious weaknesses. As an anonymous correspondent (anonymous because this person teaches at an evangelical school) wrote in response to an earlier blog post:

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.

The REAP lawsuit is definitely forcing this issue, but this apocalyptic moment for evangelical colleges is much bigger than the lawsuit; that is to say, however the lawsuit turns out, this issue will remain. 

Below are two current examples. It is important to note that both of these schools have historically been understood as being on the “moderate” end of the evangelical spectrum. It makes sense that it is at such schools where the LGBTQ+ controversy will hit with the most force, given that it is at such schools where the “two audiences” are most apparent.

Seattle Pacific University

  • Last spring 72% of the faculty voted to declare no confidence in the school’s Board of Trustees, in response to the trustees’ refusal to modify the school’s policy forbidding the hiring of LGBTQ+ individuals. Students joined in, with one senior announcing 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 was one year ago. This May the Board reaffirmed its policy that employees who engage in “same-sex sexual activity . . . may face disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment with the University.” In response, SPU students began a sit-in outside of the interim president’s office, in which “they have coordinated meals and sit-in shifts through Google sign-up sheets, making sure there are at least three students there at any given time.” The students have announced that the sit-in will continue until July 01. If the policy remains in place on that date, the students plan to sue the Board. Most dramatically, at SPU’s June 12 commencement ceremony dozens of graduating seniors gave the interim president rainbow flags instead of shaking his hand.

 Calvin College

  • Calvin has been known as an evangelical school which – by evangelical standards – has been unusually supportive of LGBTQ+ students, even permitting a student group (the Sexuality and Gender Alliance) to operate on campus. That said, there are donors, alumni, and parents who have pressured the school to crack down on suggestions that LGBTQ+ relationships are acceptable, a position that was reinforced by a 2009 Board of Trustees statement that “advocacy of homosexual practice and same-sex marriage is not permitted.” 
  • The current controversy began in 2018, when the Trustees intervened to reject the faculty recommendation for tenure of a popular Social Work professor; in their “letter outlining its rationale” the Board “cited a number of instances . . . when he’d made public or private statements about LGBTQ issues.” This professor was, however, allowed to stay at Calvin on a renewable two-year contract. But this spring the administration and Board did not renew his contract because he officiated at a same-sex wedding. 
  • And then, just last week, the lines hardened, as the school’s governing denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, voted to make “opposition to same-sex relationships a matter of confessional status – in other words, something that congregations can’t violate.” As Calvin professor Kristen Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne, observed, “I can say that whereas before I’ve always felt like I belonged at Calvin . . . that’s now an open question. And I think it is for many of us.” And it’s clear that the ”us” applies to Calvin students as well as Calvin faculty.

By the way, this Thursday, June 23, REAP is holding an online webinar celebrating the 50th anniversary of Title IX. To quote from REAP, this webinar will include “a panel of leading experts . . . sharing the inspirational history of the Title IX movement for equality in education and the critical challenges Title IX faces today.”

The webinar is from 3-4 pm EDT (noon-1pm PDT). Use this form to sign up!