On one level, it's easy to say that private colleges and universities are voluntary associations and, thus, can limit the freedoms of their students, faculty and staff in a wide variety of ways. After all, students do not have to study there, teachers do not have to teach there and staff members do not have to work there. Participation is voluntary. This applies to liberal private schools as well as to conservative ones.
However, there is a catch and there is a good chance that this catch is playing a key role in a gay-rights drama that is unfolding in Rochester Hills, Mich., about halfway between Flint and Detroit. Here's the top of the MLive.com (a multi-newsroom site in Michigan) report:
Kiah Zabel, an openly-gay student at Rochester College, says an official at the Christian-based school insisted she stop promoting her sexual orientation or jeopardize her ability to live on campus.
Zabel tells Fox 2 she recently came out of the closet on Facebook, posting a banner photo with a caption reading "Out ... Proud ... Lesbian." But in a letter obtained by the television station, Dean of Students Brian Cole insisted Zabel change her banner photo even as he praised her honest intentions.
"'Out ... Proud ... Lesbian' is not really consistent with the heritage of Rochester College and has proven to already be disruptive among fellow students who are really bothered by it," he wrote.
Regular readers of academic dramas here at GetReligion will probably be able to anticipate the "catch" in this story. Most Christian institutions are shaped by doctrinal and lifestyle covenants that forbid sex outside of marriage. However, I do not think I have ever seen one that attempts to address issues of sexual orientation -- alone.
Thus, readers need to know whether or not Rochester College -- known as Michigan Christian College until the late '90s -- asks students to sign a covenant document that, literally, would forbid them from making public statements of this kind proclaiming that they are gay.
Luckily, the story addresses this issue -- sort of. This is what readers are told:
The Rochester College student handbook does not directly address social media or sexual orientation, but it does specify that "sexual relationships are designed by God and to be expressed solely within a marriage between husband and wife."
President Rubel Shelly, in a statement sent to MLive.com, explained that "the college affirms the right of all its students to make educational, values, and lifestyle identifications consistent with their personal life goals. At the same time, the college affirms its right as an educational institution to maintain its standards and values with consistency over time."
The problem, of course, is that private colleges and universities are supposed to be very clear about these kinds of issues. Think of this as a truth-in-advertising issue. If students are surrendering key rights -- in order to join a voluntary association -- they need to know the details.
A Facebook declaration, in and of itself, does not mean that a student has violated any kind of code of sexual conduct. Right? And what does it mean that students can "make educational, values, and lifestyle identifications consistent with their personal life goals"? I understand that a Christian college needs to "maintain its standards and values with consistency over time." But did this student sign a legal covenant that affirmed this loss of her right to make this kind of public statement of identity?
In this case, the handbook seems to be totally vague (as best I can establish). Hey lawyers, check this out:
Rochester College is a private college and enrollment is a privilege. The college’s policies and regulations reflect the values and mission upon which the college was established. Students are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that reflects these ideals, values, academic aims, and Christian standards. Failure to meet these expectations will be considered a violation of the student guidelines to which students have voluntarily chosen to adhere. When student actions do not reflect these expectations, the college will take disciplinary measures that may include suspension, dismissal, or criminal prosecution.
Where are these specific "student guidelines"? That is the next question reporters in Michigan must ask.
After all, we are way, way, way past the innocent legal age in which private educational institutions -- left, right and center -- can afford to be vague. There should be a candid piece of Rochester College paper somewhere containing this young woman's signature and reporters need to look for it. Otherwise, what did this student do wrong? What rule did she violate?