Gordon College, a respected Christian institution, is under fire for asking for a religious exemption from the president’s executive order that no one doing business with the government may discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. The Hobby Lobby decision allowing a religious exemption for Obamacare contraception coverage explicitly said that the ruling did not apply in cases of discrimination. David Skeel, in a discussion quoted after the jump, says that the Gordon College controversy would be the next major religious liberty issue.
The administration has made it clear that the president’s executive order does NOT exempt religious groups. A previous policy allowing an exemption for grants still stands. World Vision and various other ministries receive grants, rather than contracts, so they would not be affected. The president’s order did, however, leave intact a provision allowing religious groups to have a preference for hiring those who share their religious beliefs. Perhaps that could include religious beliefs about homosexuality.
When D. Michael Lindsey, the president of a well-known Christian college in Wenham, Mass., called Gordon College, signed a letter to President Barack Obama with 13 other religious leaders on July 1, he can’t have known what he was getting into.
The letter urged the president to exempt religious groups from an executive order that will bar the government from contracting with organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. A week earlier, numerous other religious leaders—including many college presidents—had sent a similar letter.
But that was before the Supreme Court’s sharply divided Hobby Lobby decision holding that the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate violated the religious-freedom rights of several for-profit corporations. Now it seems Gordon College has stirred up another big religious-freedom controversy.The Obama administration announced its intention to issue the nondiscrimination order several weeks before the Hobby Lobby decision, after the House failed to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in all employment contexts.
But the administration was waiting to see how the court would rule in Hobby Lobby. Though the decision did not involve sexual orientation, and for-profit corporations are not the focus of the executive order, Hobby Lobby might provide clues about the scope of religious freedom. But the Hobby Lobby majority carefully sidestepped the issue, emphasizing that the ruling applied only to a few forms of contraception at issue in the case.
Despite its silence on sexual orientation, Hobby Lobby’s vindication of religious-freedom rights emboldened the leaders to send their letter. “We must find a way,” they wrote, “to respect diversity of opinion on [sexual orientation and gender identify issues] in a way that respects the dignity of all parties to the best of our ability.”
Media coverage in the Boston area quickly shifted from Michael Wear, a former Obama campaign official who spearheaded the letter, to Mr. Lindsay and Gordon College. The principal flash point was Gordon College’s code of conduct, which forbids its students and faculty from engaging in sexual activity except in a heterosexual marriage. The day after the letter, the city of Salem announced that it was canceling a contract Gordon has to use Salem’s Old Town Hall. Salem cannot work with “an institution that enables, and now advocates for, discrimination,” the mayor wrote.
The divisions didn’t end there. More than a hundred current and former students signed a letter urging Gordon to rescind its call for a religious exemption, and more than 3,000 people signed an online petition. Even the regional college accreditation agency—the New England Association of Schools and Colleges—has taken note. The Boston Business Journal reported that the Gordon controversy will be on the agenda when the agency meets in September. (The agency later clarified that Gordon’s accreditation is not at risk.)