The topics of religious liberties and human rights are two of the most fundamental values embedded into our national consciousness as Americans. From the very conception of our nation, we have been a people who have defended the right of all people to worship whatever they believe in without fear of discrimination or persecution. We have also, increasingly, become a nation who values the life and rights of all people, especially minorities within our nation. In order to achieve a perfect democracy, we must continually uphold the tension that allows people to hold and practice beliefs that we may disagree with or find offensive, while also ensuring that our rights to life, liberty, and hapiness are protected from those who may disagree with us.
This tension has been the epicenter of a large majority of debates between the so-called “conservatives” and so-called “progressives” in recent years. Should business owners be permitted to discriminate against gays or Muslims? Should schools be forced to adopt LGBT+ inclusive curricula? Should religious schools receive federal funding if they do not allow LGBT+ students to enroll? These are the questions that we have been fighting policy battles over for the last five years, at least, and continue to fight until this present day. There doesn’t seem to be a clear answer to any of these questions, yet both sides claim it to be black and white. As a person who identifies as LGBT+ and is a Christian minister myself, this debate is not just theoretical, but deals directly with my ability to thrive in America as an equal citizen.
Alan Noble, professor of English as Oklahoma Baptist University, wrote an article in The Atlantic addressing these questions, particularly focusing on religious universities who refuse to accept openly LGBT+ students into their degree programs. This is probably the most timely issue for our nation at this moment, as the Fall Semester of college is about to commence, and many religious schools will be fighting to defend their perceived right to demand that their students live by their religious code of ethics. In the past year, a wide range of religious colleges and universities have been in the midst of a heated debate centering on Title IX, which protects sexual minorities from discrimination by institutions that receive federal funding. A number of prominent Christian universities, most prominently Biola University in California, have fought for and won exemptions from Title IX, allowing these schools to continue to refuse admission to anyone identified as a sexual or gender minority. Now, as the Fall 2016 semester begins, the controversy about state and federal funding for religious schools continues.
Last week, Califorinan religious colleges claimed a victory when the state legislature refused to pass bill SB 1146, which would have required any school which received Cal Grants to comply with California’s expansive non-discrimination policies, including allowing transgender individuals to use the bathroom of their choice and providing housing to openly LGBT+ couples. The bill was ammended and now only requires that these universities publiclize that they have received at Title IX exemption as well as providing reports to the federal government anytime a school expels a student based on their religious code of ethics. Whether or not this victory will be a lasting one has yet to be seen, but at the heart of this debate a question remains unanswered: Should religious schools (or institutions) be allowed to receive tax-payer dollars if they discriminate against any class of people, including sexual and gender minorities?
We have seen many answers to this question over the course of our nations history, and most often, it seems, the answer is inevitably “no”. We don’t have to look far back in our history until we arrive at an identical controversy. In 1983, the Supreme Court heard the case Bob Jones University v. United States, which focused on the right of Bob Jones University to discriminate in their admission practices based on the applicants race, citing their Christian beliefs as the foundation of this practice. In this particular case, the Supreme Court determined that the tax-exempt status of an institution of higher education could be revoked if the institution chose to discriminate. The Courts statement argued:
“Government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education . . . which substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on [the University’s] exercise of their religious beliefs.”
In other words, the United States’ interest in eradicating racial discrimination outweighed the universities right to be tax exempt. Bob Jones University was permitted to continue discriminating against people of color, in accordance with their beliefs, but the government was not going to assist or reward them for those beliefs. No matter how we spin this case, it is essentially the same with our modern day controversy. The United States Government, across every branch of government, has decided that LGBT+ individuals deserve equal rights in every sphere of American life. This journey has taken far too long, and is yet incomplete, but we are now at a place when my ability to marry the man I love and be protected from all forms of discrimination is gradually becoming the law of the land, and for that I am grateful. And while I am quite certain that the writing is on the wall for private colleges and universities, we have not reached a point where people like me, LGBT+ people of faith, are protected from discrimination in institutions that represent our faith.
In Alan Noble’s aforementioned post, he lays out three suggestions meant to help “work out a way for Christian schools and their surrounding communities to live with each other with respect and dignity.” I want to briefly reflect on Noble’s three points, and why I believe they are ultimately untenable.
First, Noble suggests that “schools must be very open about their values and codes of conduct. Students should understand the kind of religious community they are joining when they enroll so that they can make a prudent decision about what is best for them.” On the surface, this seems like quite a reasonable suggestion, until one considers that a large number of LGBT+ individuals do not step into their identity until between the ages of 17 and 21, or right in the middle of their college years. This is especially the case for those who have grown up in a conservative religious context. For many, myself included, I believed that “homosexuality” was a sin up until I was in college. I had suppressed my sexuality, as I was taught to do by the church, and wasn’t given the opportunity to explore my beliefs and sexuality until I was living on my own, in a new city, at my Bible college. I couldn’t have imagined where my journey was going to lead. I didn’t expect to “come out” in college, and especially didn’t expect the harsh abuse I received at the hands of professors and students alike when news of my sexual orientation spread (not by my choosing) across our campus. The college I went to was my dream school, and I fully agreed with it’s ethics and values when I was admitted. But half way through my college career, as I began to grow and mature, things changed. My beliefs evolved. My self-awareness increased. And I discovered that I was LGBT+ and that I didn’t believe that was in contradiction with my faith. This is what happens for many, dare I say, most college students in one way or another. So to assume that students can somehow make a choice to stay away from colleges with values they disagree with is largely unrealistic.
Second, Noble writes that “state and federal governments should continue to provide aid to students who attend religious schools.” He argues that “this aid largely supports low-income students, and often minorities. Cutting off these funds might mean that only wealthy, non-minority students would be able to afford to attend religious schools…”
Again, at a very surface level I agree with this statement. I came from a low-income family and could not have graduated college without the aid I received from the federal government. I understand this to be deeply true. But what Noble completely ignores is any notion of intersectional justice and seems to suggest that the government should set aside LGBT+ students rights for the “greater good” of other minorities. This argument is neither ethical nor tenable. Champions of justice have long warned us against this line of thinking. As Australian activist Lilla Watson once famously said, “your liberation is bound up in mine [therefore], let us work together!” Unless we seek collective equality for all people, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, class, or religion, then we know that no liberation is truly possible. Nobles argument is outdated and reveals a lack of understanding of what true equality and justice look like. If private colleges desire to serve minorities using federal or state funding, then they must be willing to serve all minorities, period.
Lastly, Noble writes “religious schools should help students who enroll and later decide they can no longer attend in good conscience.” He continues, saying, “schools must be vigilant about dealing with bullying and abuse and create an environment in which students who have suffered feel safe to report these incidents without fear of expulsion or retribution.”
What is essentially begin suggested here is that schools should assist students in their own expulsion when they come to embrace their sexual orientation or gender identity. But what if the student, like me, is in their Junior year of studies when they begin changing their perspectives? Why should a student be forced to leave the community that they have cultivated because the institutions doctrinal statement says they are flawed or less than? How does this cultivate an institution of higher learning, providing a “quality education” that Noble mentions in his article? What part of asking diverse students who find the freedom to speak about their sexuality or gender to leave the community helps cultivate the educational process? If this is the perspective we are vying for, then serious questions must be raised as to whether or not schools which do not allow for the full diversity of human creativity to be admitted can truly be considered institutions of higher learning at all. They seem, more accurately, to be institutions of indoctrination, which should absolutely not be receiving tax-payer dollars.
On Noble’s suggestion that Christian schools create environments that deal with bullying and are “safe spaces”, again, I believe he is speaking from a place of privilege that is blind to the real experience of LGBT+ Christian students on campuses like his. As a freshman in my Christian college, I, along with a number of other men on my floor, were victims of a homophobic hate crime. We woke up one morning to find the word “FAGS” written in powder outside our doors in the hallway. A number of us, who had spoken about our sexual orientation to each other, converged in my dorm room to discuss what to do. I sat at my computer and compiled an email to the Dean of Students, alerting him to what had happened. Within a few days, an email went out to all the men on campus saying that these actions were “inappropriate” and that it was likely “intended to be a simple, harmless prank” that “crossed serious lines.” Almost five months later, another email was sent saying that the “prankster” had come forward and apologized. And that was that.
Now that my sexual orientation was exposed to the Dean of Students (and a few other professors), I began meeting with professors who warned me about the dangers of embracing my “same-sex attractions” and recommending various forms of reparative therapy to me. As my own beliefs about sexuality continued to evolve, these meetings with the Dean and professors only intensified, eventually leading to being called in to the Deans office to promise that when I graduated I “wouldn’t waive rainbow flags” and being told by a professor that I was “demon possessed” and publicly ridiculed in her classes before my peers.
How can colleges who believe that LGBT+ people are inherently flawed and sinful ever cultivate an environment in which we flourish along with the rest of the community? If your community believes LGBT+ people are, as Romans 1 is often interpreted to describe us, those who have “exchanged the truth for a lie” and are worthy of “God’s wrath”, how could you ever create a space where we feel safe and un-ridiculed?
The answer is simple- You can’t.
Colleges and Universities that are openly anti-LGBT+ will never be capable of creating safe spaces where LGBT+ people can flourish. They will never be able to address bullying with necessary measures, because the bullying comes as part of the theological belief system being taught. Have you ever sat in an audience of your peers, while you are studying for ministry, when someone stands at a pulpit and proclaims from the Bible, “No homosexual will enter the Kingdom of God!” Do you understand the actual psychological trauma such experiences cause? And how do you think that message gets embodied in other heterosexual students who are unable to sympathies with the “struggle” of LGBT+ peers? It’s embodied in immature and abusive ways that will never be addressed by these universities administrations.
Thus, these institutions will never be safe places for sexual and gender minorities. They will always be places that not only perpetuate discrimination, but abuse. And that is the reason that I believe religious colleges and universities should not receive state or federal funding. Because their teachings and practices do not promote human flourishing, but perpetuate deeply rooted discrimination, which is fundamentally against our interest as Americans.