How a Christian college unravels

Photo: Richard Arthur Norton, CC License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/deed.en
Photo: Richard Arthur Norton, CC License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/deed.en

I want to double back to the comments from the US Solicitor General that I highlighted a couple days ago. I think it was a rare but not shocking moment of clarity from the legal forces behind same-sex marriage legalization about what the endgames of a Court ruling in their favor would really be. 

General Verrilli’s ominously worded “It’s going to be an issue” is worrisome for several reasons. First, as I said in my previous post, I think it’s absolutely fair to interpret that statement as an affirmative one. Pursuing revocation of tax-exempt status for schools that didn’t accommodate same-sex couples in either student code or student housing arrangements is consistent with the gay marriage movement’s wider claim of parallelism between same-sex marriage and racial civil rights. To affirm gay marriage at a federal level without pursuing it in this way would be a remarkable show of magnanimity, for sure, but it would also be a tacit admission that the comparison between civil rights and same-sex marriage rights either isn’t totally valid or isn’t totally worth striving for legally. Either way, I don’t see that happening.

Assuming that the Court finds a Constitutionally protected right to same-sex marriage (as many assume will happen) and assuming the Obama administration does indeed this “an issue” for schools, I’m afraid that many non-profit, ministry-oriented institutions will simply unravel.

An evangelical Christian ministry school–like, say, my alma mater–has written into its student code prohibitions against several types of sexual behavior. Premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, and pornography are all explicitly forbidden and are each sufficient grounds for expulsion. In many conservative evangelical schools, there are policies and even infrastructure in place to support these rules and keep students accountable and more likely to fulfill them. The obvious example is mandatory gender-segregated housing for nonmarried students. At my alma mater and at many other Christian schools, visits to opposite-sex dorms are allowed only on designated (=supervised) “open dorm” events. Dorms have mandatory “check-in” and “check-out” policies and hall leaders empowered by school administration to keep a tab on things (the degree to which this is done depends, obviously, on the school).

Now the point of all this, from an evangelical Christian perspective, is a Christian theology of marriage and sexuality. Evangelical schools believe that sexual abstinence before marriage and sexual faithfulness within marriage isn’t just a point of order to student life, they believe it is actually divinely revealed will for all Christians to live out. In other words, for many evangelical schools, the entire design of student life and structure of student code are designed around doctrines of sexuality and marriage which the school holds as theologically irreversible.

If an evangelical school’s non-profit status was challenged on the issue of same-sex marriage, the challenges suddenly facing it would be much, much more extensive than simply changing its policy to admit or house LGBT students. It wouldn’t be as simple a fix as, for example, the fix that Bob Jones University implemented to its ban on interracial dating–namely, to simply change the rules and express remorse over them. After all, its ban on interracial dating having been lifted, BJU still has one of the strictest, most supervised student dating handbook policies that you will find among accredited universities. Its policies on student sexuality survive almost entirely undisturbed. And that is one reason why the college lifted its ban and still receives ample support from Christian churches.

On the contrary, if BJU or any other evangelical non-profit school acted to preserve its tax-exempt status, it would have to do major overhaul of its entire theological orientation and student life philosophy. It would have to “update” its theology to reflect a very recent, very Western perspective on the biblical text. This would immediately make all seminaries, for example, of the Southern Baptist Convention un-fundable to the Convention’s churches.

Such a school would be forced to adjust its student life policies radically. Theoretically, a school could continue to prohibit sex before marriage, but how would a housing policy that was sufficiently LGBT-inclusive under this hypothetical legal circumstance reflect such a Christian belief? Sending a student to a particular section of housing based not on gender but on orientation seems almost impossible to do without trespassing discrimination law. Coed dorms would be the most feasible solution, but again, such a move would make the school automatically antagonistic to the sincere theological convictions of millions of Christians. And all of this presumes in the first place that a Christian college’s prohibition on premarital or extramarital sex would be legally safe–but why would it be? Why is requiring a school to change its definition of marriage less extreme than requiring it to change what marriage entails?

It’s not hard to see how forcing a Christian school to “update” its beliefs about sexuality and marriage would wreck havoc on its confessional identity and student life in ways that changing beliefs about interracial relationships would not and do not do. The comparison between sexual orientation and race is a popularly accepted one, and many people are persuaded by arguments appealing to the civil rights movement in favor of gay marriage. But by applying enforced belief changes and the necessary overhauls of student culture that such changes require, we can see that that interracial marriage and same-sex marriage deliver very different results to Christian schools.

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