Alongside that big U.S. Supreme Court case on gay marriage, another 2015 showdown merits journalistic attention.
It involves Gordon College, an evangelical campus located in the onetime heartland of the Massachusetts Puritans. Meeting Feb. 5-6, and again in May, Gordon’s trustees will ponder whether to scrap a rule that “sexual relations outside marriage, and homosexual practice will not be tolerated” among students and staff, whether on or off campus.
The New England Association of Schools and Colleges has directed the college to explain its policy for a meeting in September. The association has the power to remove accreditation if Gordon violated the requirement of “non-discriminatory policies and practices in recruitment, admissions, employment, evaluation, disciplinary action, and advancement.”
Background: Gordon’s president, D. Michael Lindsay, is no backwoods rube but a Princeton Ph.D. who was an award-winning sociology professor at Rice University. Gordon’s sexual stance drew attention because Lindsay gave a helping hand to groups like Catholic Charities, the National Association of Evangelicals’ World Relief and Bethany Christian Services, the largest U.S. adoption agency.
Last July he joined Catholic and Protestant leaders in writing a letter to President Barack Obama seeking exemption for such religious employers in a pending executive order to forbid federal contractors from discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and the transgendered. The religious petitioners lost that fight.
When news of the letter quickly broke in the mainstream press, the New England Association immediately put Gordon’s policy under scrutiny. The president of Salem State University, Patricia Maguire Meservey, protested that Lindsay et al. sent “a chilling message. . . . While I can understand a religious organization’s wishes to uphold their core religious values. I do not believe those values trump the basic human right to be treated equally and fairly.” Words to reckon with, since Meservey chairs New England’s college accrediting commission.
“Gordon’s accreditation is not in jeopardy,” insists college spokesman Rick Sweeney. He’s confident because the 126-year-old school has never been judged discriminatory -- because it moral covenant is part of its its attempts to live out its religious mission as a doctrinally defined voluntary association. The question now developing is whether U.S. accrediting bodies will continue to respect a college’s religious identity regardless of socio-political pressure.
Attorney David French at the American Center for Law and Justice decries “The Persecution of Gordon College” in the Jan. 26 National Review magazine. He thinks the association is implicitly telling Gordon “to choose between your conscience and your accreditation.” French calls loss of accreditation a “death penalty” that endangers a school’s academic stature, recruitment, eligibility for public and private grants and students’ admissions to graduate schools. Already one nearby public school district has ended a student-teacher arrangement with Gordon.
“If Gordon College is bullied into changing its behavioral policy, every faith-based school in New England -- Catholic, Protestant or otherwise -- will be at risk for the same treatment,” the Massachusetts Family Institute warns. Well, many nominally religious schools no longer have this sort of doctrinally defined covenant of conduct. But what might U.S. accrediting associations do about stricter campuses, whether evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, Muslim or Mormon? Does the state get to accept or reject centuries of doctrine?
When the Mormon Church endorsed gay rights in housing, employment and public accommodations Jan. 27, it simultaneously appealed for religious tolerance. Apostle Jeffrey Holland, formerly president of Brigham Young University, said religious institutions must be free to determine their own rules for “employment, honor code standards, and accreditation as church schools.”
Yet another source on this debate is George Marsden, a distinguished historian of America and American religion. Writing in the February First Things magazine he links Gordon’s plight with InterVarsity student groups that were expelled from California State University campuses over the gay issue and with Penn Prof. Peter Conn’s contention that accreditation should be stripped from all colleges with religious credos. Marsden appeals for “a more inclusive pluralism” across U.S. higher education that upholds religious minorities and seeks both diversity and tolerance.