Private schools can write their own rules

gay christianI have waited awhile to do an update on the MSM coverage of Jason Johnson, the gay student who was kicked out of the University of the Cumberlands, a school with Baptist roots. The story is still alive at two levels: (1) Key factual details remain a mystery and (2) there is an interesting church-state issue linked to state funds. More on that later. GetReligion readers may recall that I stressed that early coverage failed to tell us whether the Cumberlands student handbook contained language forbidding sex outside of marriage at the time Johnson enrolled as a freshman. We know it was not there when the theater major was recruited and that it was in the handbook this past fall, his sophomore year. It appears that we still do not know what the handbook said -- in writing -- when he enrolled and, most probably, signed documents saying that he willingly agreed to live by the university's student-life code.

We learn, in a report by Jamie Gumbrecht of the Lexington Herald-Leader, entitled "Gay and Christian":

Although the 2005-06 student handbook says, "Any student who engages in or promotes sexual behavior not consistent with Christian principles (including sex outside marriage and homosexuality) may be suspended or asked to withdraw," Johnson said he was not expecting the expulsion. He was heading to class when he was told to go to the student services building. Caught unaware, he wondered if he was receiving an honor from the school, although it seemed odd to be told to skip class.

"In the back of my mind, I thought what I was doing was probably risky," Johnson said of his Web postings. "When I'd already told my parents, I had nothing to be afraid of. If something happened at school, now there was no question that my parents would support me."

Note that Johnson said he did not expect to be expelled, even though he knew about the policy on sex. This is actually an interesting hook in this story, no matter what you think of the policy in question. As noted in comments about the previous post, it is valid to ask if (1) the university has made consistent attempts to advocate or enforce its rules on sexual morality and (2) whether these rules are enforced for homosexuals, but not for heterosexuals.

Yes, there is a story there. The issue, strangely enough, is not whether these schools are being too conservative. The issue may, in fact, be this: Are they being conservative enough on sex? Are they being consistent? A former journalism student of mine, years ago, put it this way: Two gay guys get in trouble if they even look at each other. Meanwhile, we have straight students all but conceiving babies on couches in our dorm lobbies.

Meanwhile, we do know that private schools -- left and right -- can write their own student-life codes. This is true for liberal schools that want to crack down on "offensive" (usually conservative) speech or on campus evangelism. A liberal school could require on-campus Christian groups to water down traditional Christian doctrines. But here is the key: The school has to state the rules openly and enforce them consistently. (Click here for more information on that.)

HeaderBkgrdwLogoBy the way, it is interesting to note that Johnson grew up in a congregation openly identified (slogan: All are welcomed here -- no exceptions) with the left or, in press speak, "moderate" side of the 25-year civil war inside the nation's largest non-Catholic flock. This is the smaller, "progressive" camp (think Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter). As Gumbrecht reported:

Johnson has lived in Lexington with his parents and two brothers since the early 1990s. He was baptized in 1996 at Central Baptist Church, which split from the Southern Baptist Convention and the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

So there is a story in there. How can close can Southern Baptists or former Southern Baptists skate to the edge of the mainline-Protestant ice on social issues without falling through? This is a hot issue among Baptists on the left, who are often afraid to discuss the issue openly.

Journalists can and should cover both sides of these theological debates on sex. But they must also understand that private schools -- left and right -- have the freedom to make their own rules. It is also legal for government aid to flow to the students in these schools.

But what about state money flowing to the schools themselves? That is another issue and that is the second layer to the Cumberlands story. The Louisville Courier-Journal notes that gay-rights groups are now pouncing on this question, in the wake of the Johnson expulsion. At stake is Gov. Ernie Fletcher's drive to steer state funds to the Cumberlands administration for a new pharmacy school.

The state budget includes $1 million in pharmacy scholarships and $10 million to build a pharmacy school at the 1,743-student, Baptist-affiliated school in Williamsburg. Fletcher spokesman Brett Hall said the governor has not decided whether to issue any vetoes in the $18 billion budget for 2006-08 that state lawmakers passed this week.

Fletcher issued a statement saying, "My administration does not condone discrimination of any kind."

As you would expect, this has led to a small effort to protest what happened to Johnson and to attack the possible state grant to the Baptist university. As you would expect, the demonstrators mixed liberal theology into their political views on the funding issue.

A sophomore and dean's list student, Johnson reached an agreement with the university Tuesday that will allow him to finish his coursework and receive a transcript that will reflect his grades for the semester. His boyfriend, Zac Dreyer, was one of several speakers at the rally.

Some attendees wore T-shirts with such sayings as "Gay and Proud," "Jesus Loves My Gay Friends, Too," and "I'm For the Separation of Church and Hate." Some carried signs that said: "If God Didn't Make Homosexuals, Why Do They Exist," "Jesus Wouldn't Kick Him Out," "WDJG: Where Did Jason Go" and "God Does Not Condone Hatred."

That's all fair game. Free speech is a good thing, for Johnson and for the millions of conservative Baptists who disagree with him.

For journalists, the goal is to cover both sides accurately and fairly while focusing on the bigger issue -- the rights of private colleges and the rights of students to attend them or leave them. Perhaps this is a pro-choice story.

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