Michael Lindsay, President of Gordon College, the Christian liberal arts college that I attend on Boston’s North Shore, co-signed a letter to President Obama, asking that he include a religious exemption in his imminent executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Gordon President Michael Lindsay wrote his name alongside thirteen others, including Michael Wear and Stephen Schneck, both involved in faith outreach for the 2012 Obama campaign. But within hours of the letter’s reproduction in the Atlantic, Gordon was hit by a wave of controversy.
The Boston Globe’s Adrian Walker declared, “Instead of attempting to defend its right to discriminate, Gordon officials could have taken the opposite route and embraced a long Christian tradition of standing for equality. That would be far more in line with the Christianity many of us were raised with.” Outraged reactions have poured in via social media from students and alumni. The City of Salem has reportedly cut ties with the College. The president of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which grants Gordon its accreditation, says the body “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.”
The vast majority of student loans are federal, (93 percent in 2011, according to the Wall Street Journal), and institutions accepting that federal money are considered federal contractors. The president of Gordon’s board of trustees has insisted that the College does not and will not discriminate: “Gordon has not and will not bar categories of individuals who want to work or study at Gordon, provided they can support and live by our statements of faith and of life and conduct.” Those guidelines state that “words and actions which are expressly forbidden in Scripture, including but not limited to blasphemy, profanity, dishonesty, theft, drunkenness, sexual relations outside marriage, and homosexual practice, will not be tolerated in the lives of Gordon community members, either on or off campus.” While the College does not view such a policy as discriminatory, some critics disagree.
These differing notions of discrimination are one reason why the letter’s signers see a religious exemption as necessary. Noting that it is, indeed, important to root out discrimination and recognize human equality in light of God’s divine creation, they state, “it still may 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.” We need, they say, to “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.”
Amid all the controversy on campus (and offit is, after all, summer break), I find myself standing behind President Lindsay’s decision. Were the government to require Christian colleges to hire professors who do not share the community’s spiritual values, America’s freedom of religion would suffer a great blow. To deny private institutions’ rights of religious liberty with the executive order coerces the university into a course of action that is incompatible with its religiona situation that Thomas Jefferson spoke against in his letter to the Danbury Baptists.
Gordon suffers this summer because the important conversations regarding the legalism of Christianity and the LGBT are mostly taking place via social media. Surely it would be healthier to talk about this in person, or with the whole campus convened for an address in Chapel. A multidenominational college, Gordon is naturally home to a wide range of social, political and theological beliefs.
The debates taking place among and within the Christian churches over sexuality are complicated and should be approached thoughtfully by every believer. But these conversations should be left to the Church, not the State. The First Amendment’s deference to religious communities allows healthy space between the Church and State. That gap deserves respect, both within and outside of the Church, rather than mockery and accusation from those who do not view religion as legitimate grounds for morality. Gordon’s ongoing commitment to its Christian identity is one of the reasons I believe it is well equipped to embody the motto of Saint Anselm: Faith seeking understanding.
Mary Hierholzer (@maryhierholzer) is an undergraduate at Gordon College. The views expressed here are solely her own.