Washington Post editors still don't understand that private schools -- left and right -- have doctrines

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United Methodists are, of course, getting ready for their extraordinary global conference next month in which they will try to decide if the Bible and 2,000 years of Christian doctrine have anything definitive to say about marriage and sex.

One powerful pack of lobbyists on the doctrinal left — the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church — have come out swinging, urging the conference to allow “full inclusion” for all in the denomination’s life and work, no matter what their “gender identity” or “sexual orientation.”

It’s safe to say that leaders of these 93 schools — including universities such as Emory, American, Duke, Syracuse and SMU — have created campus policies that encourage or require students, faculty and staff to embrace this modernized approach to moral theology.

That’s fine, as long as these schools are very up-front about the doctrines that define life in their private associations. Private schools on the left and right are allowed to do that. (Click here for a column that I wrote several years ago about efforts at Vanderbilt University to require on-campus ministries to toe the evolving LGBTQ line: “The new campus orthodoxy that forbids most old orthodoxies.”)

Once again let me stress: Private schools on the left and right have a First Amendment right (think freedom of association) to defend the doctrines that define campus life.

Some journalists continue to struggle with this First Amendment concept, leading to lots of GetReligion posts trying to explain the law and history behind “lifestyle” and doctrinal covenants at private schools.

For a perfect example of this problem, see the new Washington Post report with this headline: “The school that hired Karen Pence requires applicants to disavow gay marriage, trans identity.” Here is the lengthy, but essential, overture to this story.

The school where Vice President Pence’s wife, Karen, has accepted a part-time job teaching art requires potential employees to affirm certain religious beliefs that seek to exclude homosexual and transgender applicants, including that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

Immanuel Christian School, a private K-8 school in Springfield, Va., outside of Washington, sets forth the position in its employment application for teachers and support staff in a section that requires applicants to initial a set of standards that begins with a promise that they are born-again Christians.

One of the items is a pledge to “live a personal life of moral purity."

“I understand that the term ‘marriage’ has only one meaning; the uniting of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive covenant union as delineated in Scripture," the section says, saying that God intended sexual acts to occur only between “a man and a woman who are married to each other.”

“Moral misconduct which violates the bona fide occupational qualifications for employees includes, but is not limited to, such behaviors as the following: heterosexual activity outside of marriage (e.g., premarital sex, cohabitation, extramarital sex), homosexual or lesbian sexual activity, polygamy, transgender identity, any other violation of the unique roles of male and female, sexual harassment, use or viewing of pornographic material or websites, and sexual abuse or improprieties toward minors as defined by Scripture and federal or state law.”

To it’s credit, the Post team then offered a strong quote from Robert W. Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington Law School, noting that it was “well within her rights” for Pence to choose a school with this kind of covenant.

However, I wondered about something: If Pence was “within her rights” in this case, is that the same thing as saying that the leaders of this school were within their rights when they created this doctrinal covenant for members of their voluntary association? That’s the ultimate issue in this story.

Here’s another issue. Tuttle noted that this kind of policy is normal on the Christian right — without explaining that liberal private schools do the same thing, only defending the opposite side of these doctrinal debates between defenders of centuries of Christian tradition and those pushing progressive forms of theology.

Of course, this debate also needed a Donald Trump hook. Here is Tuttle again:

“They have staked out a certain set of positions on issues that are confrontational,” he said of the Trump White House. “The administration seems to live on wedges, so paying attention to this just feeds their interest in driving one more wedge. And this confirms their bona fides with religious conservatives and they sort of seem to do that, because Donald Trump, whatever he might say, is not that.”

All in all, this was a perfectly normal elite mainstream newsroom story about this divisive religious-liberty issue — especially since the newspaper’s religion desk was not involved. The story quotes exactly the sources one would expect to see quoted, without any troubling information from old-school liberal First Amendment sources.

As always, let me stress that journalists do not need to agree with the views of traditional religious-liberty liberals (often called “conservatives” these days) when covering stories of this kind. It is essential, however, to understand the points of view on both sides, while providing accurate coverage.

The key: Do readers finish this Post story knowing that religious institutions on the left — not just conservative schools and organizations — have these kinds of policies defending their beliefs? Religious liberals and secularists have been known to drive wedges into national life, too.

Again, please consider the experiences of an evangelical — an ordained Anglican woman — in that earlier Vanderbilt case.

Why not look at both sides of these issues? Why not examine the work of religious educators in voluntary associations on the educational left and right?

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