Here we go again: When covering campus LGBTQ disputes, always look for doctrinal covenants

It is, without a doubt, the question that I hear most often when I have a chance to meet -- face to face -- with GetReligion readers. It's one of the questions I keep seeing in reader emails.

This question: Do we ever get tired of having to address the same journalism issues over and over, writing posts that include links back to previous posts, which then link back to earlier posts and on and on?

That's right: Same as it ever was. It's kind of a deja vu all over again thing.

Yes, we do get rather tired of doing this. However, we keep hoping that at some point journalists will, you know, take an interest in basic facts about how religious institutions -- on the left and right -- do their work as voluntary associations. Why avoid relevant doctrinal and even legal information in stories about controversial issues?

So, before we get to the Inside Higher Ed coverage of the North Park University campus minister who was suspended after performing a same-sex marriage rite, let's do that flashback think that we have to do every now and then. The headline on this earlier post: "Oh no, not again: AP fails to ask school 'covenant' question in LGBTQ teacher case." Here is the echo-chamber overture:

I know. I know. Trust me, I know that your GetReligionistas keep making the same point over and over when digging into mainstream news coverage of LGBTQ teachers (or people in other staff positions) who, after making public declarations of their beliefs on sex and marriage, lose their jobs in doctrinally defined private schools.
We keep making the point over and over because it's a crucial question when covering these stories. When are reporters and editors going to start asking the crucial question?
The question, of course, is this: Had the person who was fired voluntarily signed an employee lifestyle (or doctrinal) covenant in which they promised to support (or at least not openly oppose) the teachings at the heart of the religious school's work?

That brings us to the Rev. Judy Peterson at North Park and this headline: "Gay Wedding Costs College Pastor Her Job."

As is so often the case, most of this report is based on documents. First, there is a written document by Peterson, obtained from her supporters in a pro-LGBTQ Christian organization. Then there is the printed campus response. It's hard to tell if campus leaders were asked basic questions and simply refused to answer them. So here we go again:

North Park University, a Christian institution, has suspended its pastor after the Evangelical Covenant Church temporarily took away her credentials for officiating a same-sex marriage.
Pastor Judy Peterson was placed on paid sabbatical, according to a statement from North Park. The university confirmed Peterson had her ordination credential suspended by the church, but redirected questions on why to Evangelical Covenant officials, who did not respond to request for comment.
“North Park University welcomes conversations around the topics over which there are differences of viewpoint,” the university’s statement reads. “The role of the academy is to foster thoughtful, respectful discussion which allows for difference and accepts people regardless of viewpoints. Our campus ministries staff and others in student engagement and elsewhere in the university will continue to foster such an environment in the months ahead as we engage in intelligent discourse on difficult issues.”

Now, in this case there are two crucial questions -- since we are dealing Peterson's job status at a denominational school AND her status as an ordained minister in a specific denomination.

In other words, she may have (a) taken ordination vows to defend the church's teachings and (b) have signed a doctrinal covenant linked to her preaching and teaching at the university.

The story is very upfront about the fact that Peterson knew she was taking a risk:

Per the letter, Peterson had been asked in fall 2016 by a North Park alumnus to officiate his wedding. Knowing the church does not support same-sex marriage, Peterson asked the advice of a high-ranking Evangelical Covenant official who oversees and can discipline Covenant pastors, the executive minister of the Board of Ordered Ministry.
The executive minister warned Peterson her credentials could be jeopardized, the letter states.
She officiated the wedding in April 2017, writing in the letter that she felt it was her duty to stand with those who had been marginalized by both the church and the world. ... While Peterson acknowledged that the church did not allow it, she said she was somewhat confident given the church’s history of not punishing dissenters.

As always, we are dealing with mere "religious rules" -- not centuries of doctrine.

That's a key part of the lingo on the Christian left and, as such, it's crucial information in a story. However, it's important for reporters to allow the other side to state its own beliefs and then to defend them.

So what did North Park leaders say, when asked about the contents of the doctrinal statements that define life on their campus?

There is no evidence that they were asked this question. There is no evidence that denominational leaders were asked the contents of their ordination vows.

Now, it is possible that the university has a very vague doctrinal statement. A click or two on the campus website yielded:

Formed in 1885 by Swedish immigrants, the Evangelical Covenant Church seeks to form and nurture communities and individuals who are deeply committed to Jesus Christ and passionately engaged in Christ’s mission in the world. The church’s missional identity is characterized by these values:
* The Bible is the Word of God, and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine and conduct
* The necessity of new birth
* A commitment to the whole mission of the church
* The church as a fellowship of believers
* A conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit
* The reality of freedom in Christ

Is that it? Is that what Peterson signed, if she signed a covenant defining her work? If so, she has a really strong case that she didn't step out of line.

But is that, in fact, the covenant that she voluntarily signed when accepting her job? You can see that this would be crucial information to know when covering her attempts to regain her job.

Maybe North Park doesn't like to put specifics on paper? If so, that seriously undercuts the school's ability (Hello, U.S. Supreme Court, in a 9-0 decision) to take doctrine and beliefs into account when hiring and firing members of its team.

So let's dig a bit deeper for one final question: Do denominational leaders insist that their clergy to affirm this church resolution on marriage and sexuality? Is this language written into any document signed by staff and faculty at North Park?

Declaration
God created people male and female, and provided for the marriage relationship in which two may become one. A publicly declared, legally binding marriage between one woman and one man is the one appropriate place for sexual intercourse. Heterosexual marriage, faithfulness within marriage, abstinence outside of marriage -- these constitute the Christian standard. When we fall short, we are invited to repent, receive the forgiveness of God, and amend our lives.

Just asking. Again. And again.

What is the journalistic logic for avoiding crucial information of this kind?

Please respect our Commenting Policy