I have met more than few students during my life -- which has included on-campus visits to at least 50 Christian colleges and universities -- who enrolled in a school without knowing much of anything about its doctrinal and denomination ties that bind.
In some cases, their parents did all of the homework and background reading and the student wasn't really part of the process. In other cases, it appeared that parents who were marginal believers or even secularists simply wanted to send their child to "a safe place."
Did they read the fine print when they signed on the bottom line? Did they sweat the details in the school's student handbook or the lifestyle-doctrinal covenant? Did they make an informed decision and truly commit themselves to the school's mission? In some cases -- not really.
I bring this up because clear, articulate, honest doctrinal statements are becoming more and more important, in an age in which the U.S. government seems determined to substitute "freedom of worship" for the Constitution's commitment to the "free exercise" of religious beliefs. For example, consider the lines drawn in the Health and Human Services mandate language between churches and other doctrinally defined ministries and schools.
This leads me to an important Associated Press story from the other day that religion-beat journalists (ditto for those covering politics) will want to read. This is the rare story that will please LGBT activists and, while AP writers may not have realized it, it will also (behind the scenes, maybe) please the leaders of some proudly conservative religious schools. Here's the overture:
BOSTON -- Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark is pushing legislation she says will help members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community make more informed decisions about college.
Clark’s bill would require the U.S. Department of Education to insist that colleges and universities that apply for or receive exemptions from federal civil rights protections for students on the grounds of religious freedom make those waivers public.
The Massachusetts Democrat says at least 56 colleges and universities have pursued the exemptions since 2013. She says the exemptions enable discrimination against LGBT students in student admissions, financial aid, housing, sports and clubs.
The bill would require institutions that have applied for exemptions to say so on their websites.
Could private colleges and universities meet this requirement by making the contents of their lifestyle-doctrinal codes a major part of the application process, in a kind of truth-in-advertising mode? Yes, this might scare off a few students (that's a story angle that reporters near near these schools might want to probe), but this is an age in which it is getting harder and harder to hide from activists and their legal teams.
This same basic principle could apply to private schools on the left, as well, where students may want to know that their rights of free speech and freedom of association may be limited (as in the decision at Vanderbilt University to enforce certain progressive doctrines).
The AP story refers to the findings of a 2015 report by the pro-LGBT Human Rights Campaign opposing "hidden discrimination." Then it ends with a clear example of candor:
One of the schools covered in the 2015 report was Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. The Catholic school, with nearly 1,600 students, is owned by the Southern Benedictine Society of North Carolina, whose members are monks.
“We do not … support or affirm the resolution of tension between one’s biological sex and the experience of gender by the adoption of a psychological identity discordant with one’s birth sex, nor attempts to change one’s birth sex by surgical intervention, nor conduct or dress consistent with an identity other than one’s biological birth sex,” Belmont Abbey President William K. Thierfelder wrote in January 2015.
“We will make institutional decisions in light of this policy regarding housing, student admission and retention, appropriate conduct, employment, hiring and retention, and other matters.”
Why do these issues matter? To be blunt, confusion about a school's lifestyle-doctrinal covenant will only cause legal and personal pain. Plus, there may come a time when some LGBT activists fight the idea of lifestyle-doctrinal covenants -- period.
Consider this story the other day from The Tulsa World:
TULSA -- A former Oral Roberts University student says she has been barred from re-enrolling at the school to complete her final semester after administrators became aware that she married a woman, and she alleges school officials encouraged her to terminate her marriage in exchange for re-admission.
Sabrina Bradford, 30, and 54-year-old Ophelia Bradford received a Tulsa County marriage license on Jan. 29, 2015, more than three years after Bradford enrolled at ORU to pursue a social work degree.
Before she began her studies at the university in 2011, Bradford -- known as Sabrina McGhie at that time -- signed ORU’s Code of Honor Pledge, which among other rules states that students agree to refrain from engaging in “unscriptural sexual acts” including homosexual activity, same-sex marriage and premarital sex.
And what happened when this student attempted to enroll again, after the time away from school that included her same-sex union?
ORU declined to provide specifics on Bradford’s situation or comment on the emails, citing provisions in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. But Ossie Mills, vice president of communications and marketing, told the Tulsa World that students and employees sign the ORU Code of Honor Pledge as “an expression of their personal lifestyle commitment.”
“A student’s signature on the honor code constitutes acceptance of the entire honor code and completes a contract between the student and ORU, which is a prerequisite for matriculation as well as the student’s continued association with ORU” Mills said.
AP quotes Bradford's lawyer, asking: Can this student sue? Is the school violating Title IX, a federal statute prohibiting sex-based discrimination?
There are other painful details, of course. But here is one thing that the World story never really makes clear: At what point, in the application and acceptance process, are ORU students briefed about the contents of the Code of Honor? How often is it enforced? Is this something that is taken seriously by straight students, as well as gays?
And on the other side of the equation: Did reporters ask if Bradford remembers signing the Code of Honor? What did she think it meant? Did she notice that her vow -- with her signature -- it was legally binding?
Journalists: You can see the potential for local stories, right? Is there a liberal or conservative religious private school near you? What codes or documents do students sign in order to attend? Do the schools make the contents of these documents ultra-clear?
Trust me. This story has legs.