woody zimmerman 118 2007Amidst hysterical media joy over the U. S. Supreme Court’s recent non-ruling – which effectively let stand several lower-court decisions that had struck down state bans on same-sex marriage – many educators and analysts seem not to have anticipated the serious attack on Christian education now forming up across the country. Militant activists evidently plan to use society’s “approval” of same-sex marriage and homosexual practice to challenge Christian colleges’ policies of barring prospective students, as well as aspiring faculty, on the basis of their sexuality.

Admission and hiring policies of Christian institutions are now being called “discriminatory,” on grounds that denying homosexuals access to such colleges is equivalent to the racial discrimination of an earlier era. The media largely support this claim, and lawyers are busily spreading the word to faith-based colleges that the public mind is made up on this, and the issue is effectively “settled.” One such advocate said Christians should accept that they “have lost the culture-war” over same-sex marriage: i.e., that we should stop fighting and negotiate the best (surrender) terms possible – as though the issue was of no greater moment than whether painted toenails should be allowed on campus. The promise is that “accommodation” will allow Christian educators to keep their colleges “viable” without undue disruption.

Members of this “stop the war” brigade cite statistics purporting to show that even majorities of Christians believe same-sex marriage should be recognized and accepted within overall society, as well as Christian circles. Perhaps those statistics are genuine, but I distrust them in the same way that Ebeneezer Scrooge didn’t believe his own eyes and ears when Marley’s ghost appeared.

“Why do you doubt your senses?” asked Marley. “Because a little thing affects them,” replied Scrooge. Just so, polls alleging Christians’ approval of same-sex marriage may be inaccurate because a “little thing” can affect them. That little thing can be questions posed without proper context. Pollsters know very well that the typical Man on the Street instinctively responds to a controversial social issue by checking his wallet. “Does it affect me,” he asks – meaning financially. If it seems not to, he shrugs and says, “Then I don’t care.” This is “approval” of a kind, but not really informed approval. It lacks the wider view.

Poll-responses might be less positive on same-sex marriage and homosexual practice if questions are framed in ways that show how public schools, adoption, youth clubs, church groups, insurance, business, health care, and many other cultural aspects might be affected by uncritical acceptance of what used to be called “deviancy.” Christians might seem OK with the new social construct of same-sex “marriage because its full effect upon society has not yet manifested itself. Christian education is one of those areas about to feel the full force of this radical change that has been implemented over the heads of the People in numerous states.

Gordon College – an old, respected Christian liberal arts college in Massachusetts, since 1889 – has been threatened with loss of its academic accreditation because its Biblical view of homosexual practice as “a forbidden activity” now violates the accreditation standards of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, according to a joint statement issued by Gordon and the NEASC. Gordon’s behavioral code denies employment and student enrollment to practicing homosexuals. (Same-sex marriage was probably never anticipated in the school’s code, but such couples would still be barred, since they would certainly be engaging in homosexual behavior.) These policies align with the school’s longstanding articles of faith and practice. The NEASC has granted the college a twelve to eighteen month “…period of reflection …to review their policies to ensure that they are non-discriminatory.”

Gordon’s policy makes a distinction between “sexual orientation” and “sexual practice.” The school does not bar students or faculty of any specific sexual orientation, so long as sexual behavior at variance with Biblical teaching is not practiced. Such behavior – including heterosexual activity outside of marriage – can be grounds for dismissal from the college. These standards are common among Evangelical colleges, but less so among schools who have left their original Christian origins.

Earlier this year, Gordon argued for the “right of faith-based institutions to set and adhere to standards which derive from our shared framework of faith.” But that stance cut no ice with the City of Salem, which proceeded to cancel the college’s contract to maintain Salem’s historic Old Town Hall. Gordon’s student teachers were also removed from all Salem public schools.

Subsequently, the NEASC took the preliminary action described above. Experts on both sides of the same-sex issue anticipate – although not uniformly – that the “period of reflection” will end with the NEASC stripping Gordon of its academic accreditation. This could mean that the school will no longer be eligible to receive federal funds in any form, including payments from student loans – a financially disastrous result.

Gordon has no backup on its Biblical standards of sexual conduct. Although Biblical in its values and policies, it is not associated with any denomination. Many Christian schools are similarly independent, meaning that they cannot fall back on the polity and standards of an overseeing denomination or church body. This makes them vulnerable to the secularist legal argument that Christian-based schools are not entitled to the same Constitutional religious protections that churches have. But other Constitutional scholars note that the First Amendment’s “freedom of religion” applies to all individuals, not just to official church bodies. This argument is ongoing.

Other schools are owned by, or are closely associated with, a denomination or congregation, to whose rules and standards they are contractually bound. Administrators of some of these schools have relaxed a little in the hope that their linkage with a church will protect them from adverse actions like those that have befallen Gordon College. Some even propose that their colleges should admit gay-sympathetic students who promise to refrain from homosexual behavior. There is a prevailing expectation that this will cancel the “discrimination” charge.

However, I would caution administrators to realize that while they are bound to the standards of their governing ecclesiastical body, a school is not a church. They operate in different ways. Churches accept as congregants all sorts of people living all kinds of lifestyles. These folk can participate in worship services and attend pot-luck suppers, but pastors generally won’t allow them anywhere near church leadership positions. They would never be permitted to teach or work with young people. This is considered a normal part of “free exercise.” It won’t be interfered with unless our understanding of the First Amendment undergoes a major national transformation.

Colleges are different. When an individual is accepted as a student, he becomes entitled to full participation in the life of the school. No venue can be denied to him because of his sexual proclivities, if he is otherwise qualified and fully compliant with the school’s behavioral code. Attempts to exclude him from some activities because of his sexual “attitudes” would almost certainly produce a storm of lawsuits and disastrous publicity.

A close study of the idea of accepting students (or faculty) who are “sympathetic” to homosexuality – even if they agree not to practice it – will reveal that it poses great risk for all Christian colleges, whether they are associated with a church or not. Such students and faculty are bound to undermine the school’s Biblical foundations. An associate with long experience in Christian education predicts that accepting students (and faculty) who approve of homosexuality will be a “fatal embrace.” In time, he says, the college will cease to be Christian: “It will be just another liberal arts college, and there are plenty of those around…”

Accommodation and compromise sound so soothing – so reasonable. Surely it’s the “Christian” thing to do. But again, faith-based college administrators and trustees need to take the long view. After they have taken students and faculty who countenance homosexuality and same-sex marriage, which aggrieved group will be the next to demand acceptance? Pedophiles? Spouse-abusers? The North American Man-boy Love Association? (If you are inclined to say, “That’s ridiculous,” try to recall how far we’ve “progressed” on gay issues in the last 10 years.) This is called the “slippery slope.” I do most earnestly urge Christian schools not to step onto it.

Suppose your car is making an odd noise. If you take it to a muffler shop, they’ll probably say you need a new exhaust system. At a transmission shop, you’ll find that you need a transmission overhaul. Whatever the specialty of the shop, that repair will be recommended.

Just so, when a difficult social problem arises, lawyers always say the courts should handle it. Educators will say we need new educational approaches. Business people will want the “free market” to work it out. And government people always believe the solution is more regulation (and probably more taxes). Only rarely are the People suggested as a means to solving a problem. (In 225 years, we really haven’t learned very much about our republic.)

Lawyers want the courts to decide whether Christian schools should enjoy complete Freedom of Religion. But is that a wise gamble? Legalizing same-sex marriage over the heads of the People was the courts’ “work.” Numerous judges have made a complete pig’s dinner of the whole business. Can we really trust them on the crucial question of religious freedom? I doubt it.

The People must take this matter in hand. The courts, government, business – none of these can be trusted with it. All Christian schools need to engage. If this means that some colleges must forge ahead under the aegis of new accrediting associations, then so it will have to be. People of conscience, faith and good will – along with courageous Christian educators – can form creative solutions without compromising the integrity of their colleges.

Contrary to defeatist claims that the “war is lost,” I believe it has hardly begun.

*****

Postscript.I’m aware that addressing a topic like the one in this article automatically divides my readers into two camps: those who care about the issue, and those who do not. That’s a fact of human nature, but I want to encourage those readers who think Christian education has naught to do with them to take a longer view and realize that if religious freedom goes, other freedoms might quickly follow. No true patriot can countenance that. We must hang together on this or, as Benjamin Franklin once said, we shall certainly all hang separately. If the Constitution doesn’t mean complete religious freedom for every American, then it means nothing.