It’s becoming easier and easier for religious groups to defend their bigoted beliefs.
We obviously saw this in the Hobby Lobby decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the religious beliefs of certain corporation owners trump the needs of their employees, but the “religious exemption” claim has come up before, too — Christian-owned businesses refusing to serve LGBT people, for example, or Christian schools trying to shut out LGBT teachers and students.
One school in Massachusetts recently made a loud plea for legal, religious-based anti-LGBT discrimination, but thankfully their efforts may get cut short.
Earlier this month, a group of faith-based organizations wrote a letter to President Obama in response to his executive order banning anti-LGBT hiring discrimination from groups receiving federal funding. More specifically, they requested that religious organizations continue to receive federal funding even if they discriminate against LGBT people, all in an attempt not to stifle their religious beliefs:
With respect to the proposed order, we agree that banning discrimination is a good thing. We believe that all persons are created in the divine image of the creator, and are worthy of respect and love, without exception.
(Quick interruption to say: Worthy of respect and love, but not worthy of a job? Double standard, much?)
Even so, it may still not be possible for all sides to reach a consensus on every issue. That is why we are asking that an extension of protection for one group not come at the expense of faith communities whose religious identity and beliefs motivate them to serve those in need. …
Often, in American history — and, indeed, in partnership with your Administration — government and religious organizations have worked together to better serve the nation. An executive order that does not include a religious exemption will significantly and substantively hamper the work of some religious organizations that are best equipped to serve in common purpose with the federal government. …
But our concern about an executive order without a religious exemption is about more than the direct financial impact on religious organizations. While the nation has undergone incredible social and legal change over the last decade, we still live in a nation with different beliefs about sexuality. We must find a way to respect diversity of opinion on this issue in a way that respects the dignity of all parties to the best of our ability. There is no perfect solution that will make all parties completely happy.
Translated: “Gay people are icky, and even if some of them can get married now, it grosses us out to have to share office space with them. Respect us!” (Read the full letter here.)
D. Michael Lindsay, the president of the federally-funded Gordon College, signed on to this letter. (His co-signers include Rick Warren, Christianity Today‘s Andy Crouch, Catholic Charities USA’s Larry Snyder, and about a dozen others.) Just days later, the school is being placed under review by an accreditation agency to see if they deserve to keep their accredited status.
The New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ Commission on Institutions of Higher Education will review whether Gordon is violating a nondiscrimination policy by making this request. The group requires that member schools adhere to “non-discriminatory policies and practices in recruitment, admissions, employment, evaluation, disciplinary action, and advancement,” and maintain an atmosphere respecting and supporting “people of diverse characteristics and backgrounds.”
The commission will meet in September to decide the school’s fate, where the worst-case scenario is that Gordon loses its accreditation, hurting its access to federal funding and its credibility. (Obviously, that’s far from the worst case for the rest of us.) According to Barbara Brittingham, president of the commission, it’s going to be a real humdinger:
“It has achieved a lot of visibility and the issues are complicated,” said [Brittingham], referring to Gordon College. “(The commission) will talk about the issues and decide if the issues, that are raised and what is publicly available, is at odds in any way with standards and policies.” …
Brittingham said the commission has never been faced with an issue quite like the one Gordon College has posed. She added more specifically that the body has not taken up a matter involving discrimination related to sexual orientation.
So even though it’s not unusual for a school to discriminate against LGBT people, it’s apparently pretty new that an agency fights back. (Or this one, at least!) Agency officials and Gordon spokespeople alike are keeping their public statements vague:
College spokesman Rick Sweeney said that he was unaware that the commission planned to review the situation. Lindsay signed the letter asking for an exemption with the other religious leaders to show “support for the larger issue of religious liberty on behalf of private religious institutions like Gordon,” he said.
“It does not represent a policy for Gordon. It represents support for the larger underlying issue,” Sweeney said.
There have been other consequences, too. Salem, Massachusetts Mayor Kim Driscoll terminated Gordon’s contract to manage the city-owned Old Town Hall, the site of the famous production “Cry Innocent” and other cultural highlights. More than 3,000 people also signed a petition asking Lindsay to rescind his request (Gordon’s student enrollment is about 1,700). It reads in part:
“While we recognize the variety of beliefs based in Holy Scripture, we do not believe that there is a Biblical requirement to refuse employment to people of LGBT sexual orientation.”
Here’s the kicker: With all this media and student backlash, Lindsay issued another letter, this time to the Gordon community. Here, he writes that his intentions were misinterpreted and that he’d never, ever advocate for discriminatory hiring practices:
Signing the letter was in keeping with our decades-old conviction that, as an explicitly Christian institution, Gordon should set the conduct expectations for members of our community. Nothing has changed in our position. The letter asks the president for the same religious exemption that was passed by a U.S. Senate bill (S.815) in 2013 with bipartisan support. [Note: LGBT groups are dropping their support of this bill, ENDA, every which way.] Some have misunderstood this message as requesting something new or different. That’s not the case. President Bush signed an executive order in 2002 that offered the same sort of religious exemption that we are requesting of President Obama. …
Be assured that nothing has changed in our position regarding admission or employment. We have never barred categories of individuals from our campus and have no intention to do so now. We have always sought to be a place of grace and truth, and that remains the case. As a Christian college, we are all followers of Christ. As long as a student, a faculty member, or a staff member supports and lives by our community covenant documents, they are welcome to study or work at Gordon.
In general practice, Gordon tries to stay out of politically charged issues, and I sincerely regret that the intent of this letter has been misconstrued, and that Gordon has been put into the spotlight in this way. My sole intention in signing this letter was to affirm the College’s support of the underlying issue of religious liberty, including the right of faith-based institutions to set and adhere to standards which derive from our shared framework of faith, and which we all have chosen to embrace as members of the Gordon community.
I don’t buy this apology in the slightest. It sounds to me like Lindsay was counting on other Christian liberal arts schools to join the movement, and now that his school is on display (The Catholic University of America is the only other school who signed on), he’s getting cold feet.
It will be a while before we find out what happens next, but this should serve as a wake-up call to all those religious groups getting overly excited about the chance to legally discriminate against LGBT people. We’re at an awkward place in history with regards to religious freedom, but the uncertainty is not going to last.