Azusa Pacific's shift on LGBTQ issues gets a round of boos from most media

For the past month, we at GetReligion have been following a story at Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical institution about 25 miles east of Los Angeles at the base of the San Gabriel mountains.

A few weeks ago, the school’s administration lifted its ban on same-sex dating relationships, saying that LGBT students could be romantically involved on campus. (However, they were expected not to be having sex; a stricture that heterosexual students were also expected to observe). This caused much rejoicing among gay students and their allies and it was an unusual step for a conservative Protestant college, to say the least.

Then the school’s trustees stepped in and reversed that decision. The San Gabriel Valley Tribune, which has had the most complete coverage thus far, picks it up here:

Azusa Pacific University students linked arms and prayed for one another Monday in response to the university board’s decision to reinstate a ban on LGBTQ relationships late last week.

Two hundred students gathered in front of the Richard and Vivian Felix Event Center on Monday morning in support of LGBTQ students who may have been hurting as a result of the reinstatement of the ban. A clause banning same-sex relationships had been removed from the student code of conduct by administrators at the start of the semester but reinstated on Friday…

In time for the Aug. 27 start of the fall semester and following months of discussions between students and university leaders, Azusa Pacific had removed a section from its student conduct policy that outlawed LGBTQ relationships on campus. The altered language referenced a standing ban on pre-marital sex but dropped any mention to orientation.

When the APU student newspaper published an article on Sept. 18 about the move, the 119-year-old university received some kudos but significantly more criticism, especially from Christian media outlets and pundits.

At this point, the newspaper links to (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President) Al Mohler’s Twitter feed.

Headlines claimed the university had “caved,” “surrendered” and was “Losing ‘God First.’”

In response, the university announced Friday afternoon that because the policy change was never approved by its Board of Trustees, it was reinstating the ban.

No matter what side you may be on, this sure looks like a PR disaster for APU. I’m betting that once the news of the policy change got to university trustees, donors and lots of parents, all hell broke loose behind closed doors. And so the university had the humiliation of reversing itself again. However, I have my doubts that this change in policy somehow slipped past the trustees. APU obviously stuck out its big toe on this one, then withdrew when the heat got too hot.

In a related article, the San Gabriel paper emphasized how betrayed many students felt. The earlier policy change had come about after a year of dialogue with university officials.

“They looked us in the eye and said this policy is harmful, it’s discriminatory, it’s stigmatizing and we’re going to get rid of it,” (a former student) said. “And we trusted them.”

Christianity Today’s compared the original text of the Student Standards of Conduct with a newer version released last month that was far less critical of homosexuality. Its more recent piece noted that the sudden shift in direction was not well thought out and that contradictory material was still on APU’s web site. It said:

The board of trustees’ announcement did not address the future of any LGBT support efforts. APU does not require their students to be Christian—only about one-third of schools in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) ask students to sign a faith statement—though it comes out of a Wesleyan tradition and ascribes to a biblical statement of faith.

APU had also recently dropped longstanding language from an eight-point statement on human sexuality, which declared “homosexual acts” (among others) are “expressly forbidden” by Scripture; “heterosexuality is God’s design for sexually intimate relationships”; and “humans were created as gendered beings” in order to be fruitful and multiply. Those initial revisions remain on the website and were not specifically addressed in the board’s remarks.

I’m curious why the Los Angeles Times has not wandered into this story, being that it had last month covered another event involving an APU prof and gay rights issues which I wrote about here.

One of the better stories appeared in Medium.com in the form of a profile of two campus lesbians.

Zabrina Zablan attended Azusa Pacific University (APU), a prestigious evangelical college in Southern California, for one main reason: to “pray away the gay.” If she studied the Bible enough, she thought, maybe God would deliver her from a sexual orientation that her conservative religious family viewed as sinful.

Instead, she fell in love.

Zablan met Ipo Duvauchelle, a fellow APU student, and the two women began dating. Zablan and Duvauchelle shared similar worldviews, a warm sense of humor, and a deep faith. It seemed God was not interested in breaking up the happy lesbian couple. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for university administration.

Predictably –- in that Medium stories are more narrative opinion than straight news — the story took the side of the women although it did point out that Zablan had signed a covenant with the college her freshman year promising not to engage in romantic same-sex relationships.

But it didn’t press Zablan as to why she didn’t feel the need to keep her word. Instead:

Zablan’s story illustrates the painful human cost of LGBTQ discrimination on conservative Christian college campuses. As these schools look to the future, LGBTQ inclusion is perhaps the most pressing and controversial issue they face. Evangelical institutions like APU must contend with a younger generation of increasingly affirming LGBTQ Christian students and faculty, while still relying on millions of dollars in conservative donor funding. In addition to internal fission over this issue, these schools also face increasing external pressure on a legislative level, as the national debate over our country’s anti-discrimination laws rages on.

The article does draw a detailed history of LGBTQ activism on Christian campuses, specifically the career of Michael Vazquez, a gay staff member for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a campus Christian outreach. Earlier this year, Vazquez founded Brave Commons, an advocacy group pushing for change in these colleges’ official policies on gays.

The article was clearly on the side of the gay students, but at least it quoted a spokeswoman from the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities saying that CCCU institutions are trying to work out the best scenarios for gay and straight students alike. Being that many outlets hardly bother to quote doctrinally conservative colleges when writing about this topic, Medium definitely gave it a shot.

Then again, you know things are bad in journalism when you have to commend a publication for including the other side’s POV.

Do consider, though, what tmatt calls the mirror image scenario. What if liberal Jewish students did advocacy on an Orthodox campus on behalf of lifting kosher rules to allow pork? What if these same activists at APU traveled across town to California Islamic University in Fullerton to demand the institution allow same-sex couples on its campus?

Is it reasonable to ask such institutions to go against their basic teachings to accommodate people who have no intention of following those teachings? Doesn’t that do something to dilute the basic character of these colleges, which are voluntary associations? Of course it does, and there are lots of people who send their kids to an Islamic or Christian institution because they don’t want their offspring to run into the lack of values one encounters at a state university.

It’d be nice if their points of view were included in the APU saga, but that’s a pretty vain hope these days.

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