As I stood before more than seven hundred college graduates and their families during our annual ritual called commencement, I wondered if our graduates’ children will be allowed the privilege of the kind of education they received in a Christian liberal arts university. The future is not certain. I feel sure that universities can solve concerns about cost. We will survive the online revolution. The quality of the educational experience speaks for itself.
Instead, the threat that worries me most is the infringement of religious freedom by our own government.
In the recent Supreme Court oral arguments on same-sex marriage Justice Alito questioned U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., asking him, “In the Bob Jones case, the court held that a college was not entitled to tax exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?” Verrilli’s chilling reply was that he would need to know more details, but that “it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is—it is going to be an issue.”
What we hear Mr. Verilli saying is that freedom of religion “is going to be an issue.” For Union University, and schools like her, our views about human sexuality and religious liberty are deeply rooted in biblical revelation and thousands of years of Judeo-Christian tradition. Because of our history, Baptists in America are particularly sensitive to coercive government actions that infringe on religious liberty. America’s first Baptist leader, Roger Williams, had to flee Massachusetts and found a colony in Providence, Rhode Island, because his religious beliefs were not tolerated by the laws of Massachusetts. As a religious dissenter, he was run out of the state.
Because we know what it is to have our own religious liberties infringed, we are alarmed whenever any religious group’s rights are threatened. As the famous Baptist preacher, George W. Truett, once said, “A Baptist would rise at midnight to plead for absolute religious liberty for his Catholic neighbor, and for his Jewish neighbor, and for everybody else.”
So I am deeply concerned about the impact the Supreme Court’s ruling might have on faith-based or other educational institutions—including schools from grades K-12, colleges, universities, theological seminaries and graduate schools—that hold to natural or conjugal marriage, which has only come into question within the past decade.
This is not an insignificant number of schools. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, there are approximately 29,000 religiously-affiliated pre-schools, elementary schools and high schools in the United States. In addition, there are more than 1,700 religiously-affiliated colleges and universities in our country, the majority of which hold to religious traditions that celebrate sexual intimacy within the bonds of marriage between one man and one woman. These institutions will not abandon these convictions for any tax benefit.
Because the Court found a constitutional guarantee to same-sex marriage, will faith-based institutions be faced with a decision to deny their convictions or lose their tax-exempt status? Will their students be denied Pell grants and other forms of direct-to-student government aid? The consequences could be catastrophic for private, faith-based education, secular education and the common good.
If faith-based educational institutions cease to exist, the state educational system will not be able to accommodate the number of students then dumped into the pool. Moreover, to force students by default to attend secular schools is a form of mind control. Would our government embrace the tactics of regimes in the past that made hypocrites of citizens by insisting that they agree by force of law, if only outwardly, on matters of faith?
Surely, that “is going to be an issue.”
Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver, Ph.D., is the sixteenth president of Union University, with campuses in Jackson, Germantown, and Hendersonville, Tennessee.