Trust me on this. Headline writers in the great state of Texas, and sometimes even nationwide, cannot resist themselves when it comes to juicy news stories about sex and my alma mater, Baylor University. Consider this doozy of a headline from the alternative Dallas Observer:
GAY SEX A-OK FOR MARRIED BAYLOR STUDENTS! THAT'S HOW WE SEE IT, ANYWAY
Yes, no one expects traditional, American model of the press journalism from this kind of alternative paper handed out for free to sell personals ads, as well as ads for hip nightclubs and fast-food joints. In this case, however, it's handy to read what the Observer said because its story was based, as usual, on its editors reading the mainstream media coverage in Texas and then reacting. So here is a key passage:
Sure, the wording on Baylor's new sexual misconduct policy is incredibly vague. But reading between the lines here, we're pretty sure that Baylor's Board of Regents is tacitly saying that Baylor students are now allowed to have homosexual sex. As long as they're married. And that they perform their homosexual acts in accordance with the Bible. And they understand that their sexuality is a gift from God. How about you just read the full, revised policy below?
Baylor will be guided by the biblical understanding that human sexuality is a gift from God and that physical sexual intimacy is to be expressed in the context of marital fidelity. Thus, it is expected that Baylor students, faculty and staff will engage in behaviors consistent with this understanding of human sexuality.
The problem, which you know if you clicked the "misconduct policy" link in that text (here it is again, leading you to the .pdf), is that this is not the "full" text. The policy also includes an "application" statement that says, in typical lawyer language:
This policy will be interpreted by the University in a manner consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message of 1963. Under no circumstances may this policy be construed to waive any of the rights granted to Baylor University under the exemption issued to the University on September 26, 1985, by the U.S. Department of Education covering certain regulations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 or under the religious exemption Section 702 Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Now what in tarnation, you can hear editors saying, is the Baptist Faith and Message of 1963? You mean that, in order to understand this story, we have to look up a RELIGIOUS DOCUMENT as well as materials about Baylor from the U.S. Department of Education (basically stating that Baylor has a right to define itself in terms of Christian doctrine)?
No thank you, we'll just write some snark about sex and Baylor and move on.
Now, the Baptist Faith and Message of 1963 (yes, that date matters to "moderate" Southern Baptists) is a sort-of creedal document that has the following to say about marriage, in keeping with several millennia of traditional doctrine and human history:
Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime. It is Gods unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and His church, and to provide for the man and the woman in marriage the framework for intimate companionship, the channel for sexual expression according to biblical standards, and the means for procreation of the human race.
Now, does this sound like the Baylor trustees redefined marriage and endorsed gay sexual activity? Not really.
However, the way the Baylor policy is set up -- with the policy followed by its "application" -- does raise a key question, in the wake of that 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court Obergefell decision on gay marriage: Will courts (and academic accreditation groups) see a legal link between the words of the policy and that application statement?
We will know when some activist or academic heavyweight sues Baylor (or tries to get its sports teams kicked out of the Big 12, whichever comes first). Start that clock ticking.
This whole story began, of course, in the pages of The Waco Tribune Herald, where there was quite a bit of tension between the headline in the story and its lede, although both were accurate. The headline said:
Baylor drops reference to ‘homosexual acts’ in sexual conduct policy
This was followed by:
Baylor University has dropped language in its sexual conduct policy specifically outlawing sexual relationships between same-sex partners, though the university does not appear to be endorsing gay and lesbian couples or sex outside of marriage.
The university’s sexual misconduct policy previously listed “homosexual acts” among the sexually related conduct that could prompt disciplinary action, along with adultery, fornication, incest, sexual abuse, harassment and assault.
But that clause is dropped under a new sexual conduct policy approved by Baylor’s Board of Regents at its last meeting. The policy now no longer outlines specific actions that would be considered violations.
Yes, note the "does not appear" wording. The Trib team did, to its credit, run a quote from the Baylor spokesperson quoting the crucial Baptist Faith and Message material. However, for some reason, the PR office also would "not elaborate on whether the policy opens the door for married same-sex couples at Baylor in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling knocking down bans on same-sex marriages."
This vague spot, again, led to a horrible, and quite hostile, short story in The Houston Chronicle. Check out the top of this one:
The world's largest Baptist university has dropped a ban on "homosexual acts" in its sexual conduct policy.
After years of appeals from students, alumni and others, Baylor University revised its sexual conduct policy, dropping the ban on gay sex to "state more plainly the expectations of the university," a Baylor spokeswoman said Tuesday.
"These changes were made because we didn't believe the language reflected Baylor's caring community," spokeswoman Lori Fogleman said in an email.
Baylor's old policy called "homosexual acts" a misuse of "God's gift," along with sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, incest and adultery.
Baylor, a private school that is the oldest university in Texas, has at times been slow to change with the world around it, fearing the wrath of fundamentalists.
Baptist Faith and Message text? It's nowhere to be found. Why?
Elsewhere, the Texas Tribune, which has been known to struggle with the American model of the press, basically allowed gay-rights advocates to frame the story. Like this, as published in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram:
A recent, quiet change to Baylor University’s student sexual conduct policy probably won’t go down as a landmark achievement for gay rights. The new wording is vague, and it probably didn’t grant gay students any new freedom.
But advocates are still celebrating. The old policy explicitly banned “homosexual acts” among students, and included those acts on a list of “misuses of God’s gift” that also included sexual abuse, incest and adultery.
In May, with little fanfare, the school’s board of regents approved a new policy without a specific ban. It instead says that students should be guided “by the biblical understanding that human sexuality is a gift from God,” and that sex should be limited to within marriage.
That’s a small bit of progress for the largest Baptist school in the country, gay rights advocates said.
The story briefly mentions the Baptist Faith and Message, then returns to the commentary from the gay community, on and off campus in Waco. Why no commentary from regional or national Baptist leaders? That might, methinks, affect the framing of the story.
By the time this reached The Washington Post, the key elements were firmly in place -- including the doctrinal details. The Post team also added a ton of material on similar debates on other Christian campuses on the left and right, as well as a reference to the views of hoops star Brittney Griner, who came out as gay after finishing her Baylor career.
However, leave it to Baptist Press to include one additional vital piece of material about Baylor's tensions -- as a university -- with the various academic agencies that police its life. As the old saying goes, Baylor will always struggle with issues of faith and learning. Why? It has a law school.
Thus, the BP story quotes the PR office saying that the revised policy seeks to "ensure that the university has the necessary policies and processes in place to comply with the many legal and ethical mandates to which universities are subject as institutions."
And, once again, the PR team declined to respond to this question: "Would a legally married same-sex couple be in violation of the newly adopted sexual conduct policy?"
Over to you, gay-rights experts at the American Bar Association accreditation office.
Stay tuned. Also, we have not heard from Baylor's president. Yes, that Ken Starr guy. He knows a bit about tense legal fights about sexuality and law.