Media Pile-on for Evangelical College over LGBT Employment Discrimination

The outcry was swift when Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, co-signed a letter to President Obama seeking an affirmation of the religious exemption from employment discrimination regulations.

This letter to Obama, also signed by the celebrity pastor Rick Warren and apparently drafted by Obama’s own first term faith-based initiatives director, was intended to be a pre-emptive supplication as Obama prepares his executive order banning employment denials by federal contractors to LGBT job seekers. Lindsay was the only college president to sign the letter.

Local politicians, such as Salem, MA Mayor Kim Driscoll, who voided a valid contract with Gordon College, and liberal pundits writing for the Boston Globe and the Huffington Post, seized this chance to assault Gordon College, saying more about shameless opportunism in burnishing  LGBT credentials than anything about Gordon College or its leadership.

Too bad Lindsay invited a hailstorm of invective when he needlessly opened Gordon College’s long-standing faith-based covenant to liberal scrutiny.  Gordon College, for those critics neither paying attention nor willing to do five minutes of homework, is one of a handful of non-denominational evangelical Protestant Christian colleges that since its founding has required prospective faculty and student applicants to make a written affirmation of Gordon’s statement of behavioral conduct, which expressly forbids homosexual practice, amongst a laundry list of other lifestyle precepts.

The Gordon College behavior norms derive from its statement of faith -- the foundational document for the college.

The opening reference in the statement of faith to “66 Books of the Bible,” Martin Luther’s canon, is a clear and unambiguous confession -- at least to knowledgeable Protestants -- that Gordon College has a Protestant Reformation-based purpose. The invocation of 66 Books is not just some casual reference or boilerplate de rigueur.  It is an indelible insignia, an exacting prescription for beliefs and conduct specifically Protestant Reformation in letter and character where there is no compromise.  Hardly surprising.

With respect to religious doctrine, for example, there is no reconciling of Martin Luther’s 66 Books with the Roman Catholic canon of 73 Books, in place since the 4th century. For Gordon College, whose identity as a Protestant Reformation-based institution has primacy, along with likeminded Protestant evangelical colleges such as Wheaton College in Illinois, Roman Catholic faculty need not apply. And faculty who convert to any faith outside of Protestant Reformation denominations will be forced to leave.  In the past 25 years there here have been at least two departures from the faculty ranks of Gordon and Wheaton by professors whose conversions to the Catholic faith were unwelcome.

Upon converting to Catholicism in 1985, well-known evangelical and now Catholic writer, Thomas Howard -- Wheaton College graduate and long tenured faculty member at Gordon College -- was forced to vacate his seat as professor of English.  It is entirely plausible that Howard’s departure from Gordon was mutually agreed; after all he had been a prolific Protestant evangelical advocate -- known in some circles as America’s C.S. Lewis. But in becoming an assertive Roman Catholic apologist with such narratives as “Evangelical Is Not Enough,” first published in 1984 by Ignatius Press, Howard would have struggled co-existing on such an explicit Protestant Reformation campus.

The Gordon College faculty senate in an extensive letter to then president R Judson Carlberg in 1985 reaffirmed the GC faculty conviction that only Protestant faculty could teach at Gordon.

This episode, nearly 30 years ago, simply underscores Gordon’s unerring rigid obedience to Protestant Reformation Biblical teaching that frames the fundamental tenets of its employment policies. Hardly surprising.

I suppose Thomas Howard or someone in a similar situation could have sued Gordon College for discriminatory wrongful discharge (notwithstanding Howard’s principled temperament that would have blanched at such litigation).

There seems to be ample precedent for such a discrimination claim to have been denied in the courts. In 1987 the US Supreme Court unanimously upheld the right of a Mormon Church affiliate to dismiss an employee who no longer adhered to Mormon tenets, substantially relying on the Establishment clause for the Court’s rationale. More recently, in 2011, SCOTUS unanimously affirmed the "ministerial exception" by vacating an EEOC decision and lower court judgment that awarded a claim to a person fired by the Lutheran Evangelical Church and School, citing the religious exceptions in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and in the Americans With Disabilities Act. Would Gordon College have won a court fight because its employment practices are well established in its statement of faith for its community? Under the Rehnquist court it most certainly would have. 

Most recently in 2013, the US Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, (“ENDA”) with nearly a two-thirds bipartisan majority vote. Both Massachusetts US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, no friends of religious liberty, were co-sponsors of the bill that would prohibit employment bias on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, nonetheless in Sec 6 preserved the religious exemption.

So why would anyone now be suddenly shocked that Gordon College insists on preserving its religious tenets in adhering to selective employment policies concerning gays and lesbians?

Yet Gordon College, leading with its chin open to attack amidst torrential toxic reactions to the SCOTUS Hobby Lobby decision, now must expend considerable energy in defending itself.  Gordon faces a perilous public relations vortex where all else that may be noble or exemplary at Gordon College might be buried under the rubble of the LGBT controversy.

In a post-outcry apologia of sorts,  Gordon president Lindsay on its website now seeks to reclaim First Amendment supremacy. But the assault on religious liberty, revved up after Hobby Lobby, is rapidly shifting to high gear, as gay rights groups and the ACLU have abandoned support for ENDA because of its religious exemption.

Lindsay underestimates the power and persistence of those who support government fiat to deny Gordon College and its brethren freedom to practice their religious faith, unmolested, for the sake of conforming to a secular political ideology about sexual behavior that now seems to dominate public life.

Time is ripe for Gordon College, its collegiate peers, and thousands of faith-based institutions to stop apologizing.   Once upon a time, religious liberty was a non-negotiable central tenet to this republic. Act like it still is.  And quit asking for permission to exercise our most fundamental and inalienable right.