Here at GetReligion, we’ve critiqued endless stories where a gay student (or faculty member) didn’t get the memo about the sexual standards of an evangelical Protestant or Catholic institution that they have chosen to attend — even when they actually signed the documents.
Whether they’re called covenants, creeds or behavior codes, such standards are moral, doctrinal and increasingly legal agreements between students and these private voluntary associations. Sometimes students are made to sign some sort of statement attesting that they’ve been informed of what these standards are.
Typically, the standards demand, among other things, that students not engage in extramarital sex. And “marital” is defined as marriage between a man and a woman.
Alas, a recent Religion News Service story forgot to ask those basic questions in its story about a lesbian seminary student married to a woman. Instead we hear of the “homophobic” seminary and the guileless student.
(RNS) — Over her four years at Fuller Theological Seminary’s campus in Houston, Joanna Maxon had come out to most of her teachers and classmates, and many knew that she was married to a woman.
But after Maxon turned over a copy of her tax return, filed jointly with her wife, as part of her annual financial aid application earlier this year, a complaint about her marriage was brought to the dean. In October 2018, less than a year before she expected to graduate, she was suddenly dismissed.
Months went by before Maxon could stand to make the situation public.
“It took me a while to get to the point where I could talk about it,” Maxon said. “It feels like trauma.”
But once she was ready to share her story in June, Maxon’s wife and friend got into contact with Brave Commons.
Then the story turns into a press release.
Brave Commons is an advocacy organization that helps queer students like Joanna who experience discrimination, often at conservative evangelical schools. Students at these campuses are often processing their sexuality after growing up in conservative homes. Besides dealing with adversarial school bureaucracies, they are frequently dealing with their own questions about their sexuality and how to be a LGBTQ person of faith.
Next up, explaining the background of Brave Commons’ three leaders:
The three directors have turned Brave Commons into a national organization that advocates for LGBTQ students, especially students of color, in hopes of changing homophobic policies. They also offer support in the absence of helpful ministry from Christian institutions themselves.
Is it homophobic to say marriage is between a man and a woman when several thousand years of Scripture backs that belief up? And should a supposedly dispassionate news article use the word “homophobic” as a factual description of the seminary?
The irony for students such as Maxon, who is now working full-time and has no current plans to finish her master’s degree, is that their search for community is often what made them turn to Christian colleges in the first place. “One of the classes that I was withdrawn from was a class called Practices of Community … It’s really challenging for me for a school to teach that and then not practice community,” Maxon said.
“Fuller has a nondiscrimination policy on their website. … They talk about diversity and inclusion, but they are not including LGBTQ persons in that diversity. I think they need to be clearer,” Maxon said.
But you know what else was on Fuller’s website?
Click on their policy against sexual misconduct. Scroll down a bit and you get the following in a PDF:
Fuller Theological Seminary believes that sexual union must be reserved for marriage, which is the covenant union between one man and one woman, and that sexual abstinence is required for the unmarried. The seminary believes premarital, extramarital, and homosexual forms of explicit sexual conduct to be inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture. Consequently, the seminary expects all members of its community--students, faculty, administrators/managers, staff, and trustees--to abstain from what it holds to be unbiblical sexual practices (Fuller Theological Seminary Community Standard: Sexual Standards).
The statement is in four languages to insure that everyone gets the message.
So, how did Joanna Maxon miss this? And why didn’t the reporter ask her how she missed it? Why didn’t editors ask the reporter to call back and ask these essential questions?
Unlike state universities, private universities are places that students choose to attend. Fuller is unabashedly evangelical. It’s no secret where the vast majority of evangelical institutions stand on homosexual practice.
Even the New York Times understands this. In a piece published last year about clashes between gay students and evangelical institutions, understood this. It said in part:
It’s no secret that Christian colleges do things differently than their secular peers. There are behavior codes, required Bible study, Christian-infused curriculums (think: environmental protection as “creation care”) and weekday chapel… On one hand, they offer “safety” in contrast to drinking and hookup cultures (alcohol and sex are forbidden) and take seriously their call to produce “deeper souls…”
So if that secular newspaper gets it, what didn’t Maxon understand? Was she informed of this standard when she was admitted? Did she sign something showing she was? Does the seminary still have that document?
I looked on her Facebook page at her June 14 entry where she announces being kicked out.
When one person queried her if she knew seminary policy when she enrolled, she didn’t respond. C’mon folks. She knew it. Maybe she figured that because the Houston campus was a satellite and not the main campus in Pasadena, Calif., she could somehow slip under the radar.
Judging from Maxon’s other comments on Facebook, her identity was clearly known at Fuller. I’m guessing that the tax return was a shot too far over the bow.
The very last sentence of the article said that Fuller declined comment. Seriously, folks? Did the reporter merely call up the PR spokesperson? Did he work the phones a bit, trying to get someone, anyone to comment so that Fuller’s POV would get some ink? Or if many staff at Fuller refused comment, write something like, “Fuller refused multiple requests to air its side of the story.”
Did he try Fuller’s associate provost for faculty inclusion and equality? OK, she deals with the profs, not the students but she might have had something to say. Just to slap a ‘no comment’ statement at the very end of the piece is sloppy. I get that the Maxon incident is a device on which to hang an article about Brave Commons, but there are journalistic standards out there about being fair to both sides.
To RNS: You can do better than this. I’ve seen plenty of stories where you have. Unfortunately, this piece didn’t cover the basics.