The stark contrast between Christian colleges and universities, which endeavor to incorporate Christian faith and morals into every aspect of their functioning, and contemporary secular higher education, which is dominated by an ethos which has rejected Christian civilization, illustrates not only the sharp moral divide in America, but also illustrates liberal/left intolerance of the faithful Christian component of the country. The difference in philosophy and practice was discussed in an earlier article reviewing a presentation by Dr. Derek Halverson, President of Covenant College, at the Heritage Foundation on April 13. Comments by two other panelists, Roger Severino, Director of the DeVoss Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, and Gregory Baylor, Senior Council of the Alliance Defending Freedom, showed how serious the threat really is to the Christian character, and thus the existence, of Christian higher education.
Severino asked what the pressures are today for religious institutions to secularize. He pointed to the answer of Solicitor General Donald B. Verilli to the U.S. Supreme Court regarding tax-exempt status for schools that oppose same-sex marriage. Verilli said: “It’s going to be an issue”; i.e., according to Severino, “that’s an arrow in our quiver that we may deploy at will when the conditions are right”. “Religious institutions are now being targeted for disfavor because of their views on marriage,” Severino said. But this is contrary to America’s historic commitment to liberty of conscience. Instead, Severino said, they “should be free to live and act according to their beliefs.” He pointed out that the Supreme Court has acknowledged belief in traditional marriage is a position Americans may hold. He held that the biggest current attack on religious institutions is Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The Department of Education has reinterpreted the sex antidiscrimination provisions of this law to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Not actually included in the law, “regulatory fiat” has made sexual orientation and gender identity an antidiscrimination criterion. Student conduct policies (i.e., the ability to require Christian sexual morality of students), and hiring policies (the requirements of Christian belief and sexual morality of faculty) are all now at risk. Waivers from the antidiscrimination policy do provide protection for religious institutions, but the principle homosexual activist group, the Human Rights Campaign Fund, is trying to “shame” religious institutions by publicizing those institutions requesting waivers. This includes an effort to require religious institutions to acknowledge that they are “discriminatory” on their website landing pages to warn prospective students.
Severino pointed to Gordon College in Massachusetts, which has had its accreditation questioned because it required Christian sexual morality of its students. The American Bar Association is questioning the accreditation of Brigham Young University (BYU) on the same grounds. This is despite the fact that Utah’s recently passed sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) law specifically exempted religious institutions from its coverage. This shows that no “grand bargain” with the sexual revolution is possible, Severino said. BYU was immediately attacked after the passage of the SOGI law. Severino also noted that a Catholic academy outside of Boston was ordered by a court in Massachusetts to accept a homosexual candidate from whom the academy rescinded an offer of employment after learning of the applicant’s same-sex marriage. This is the first case of a religious educational institution being ordered to accept a homosexual job applicant. Severino pointed out that if religious institutions cannot control whom they hire and fire, they also cannot control their policy, and the institution will end as a secular institution. The loss of this case gives homosexual activists and the cultural left an entrée to overthrowing the world of conservative religious schools.
It should be added that at least as bad a threat as loss of freedom in religious institution employment policies is the banning of Christian sexual conduct policies for students. There is little point in teaching traditional Christian sexual morality in these voluntary, religious institutions, if the religious teaching cannot be enforced with students and faculty.
This writer is convinced that if Christian institutions remain open in a compromised condition, they will corrupt the Christian subculture with the liberationist ideology of the Left, and likewise compromise and corrupt Christians who participate in or support them. Resisting this may be difficult or impossible due to state and societal pressure.
As an example of the latter, Severino pointed to the effort of the NCAA, which is attempting to disaffiliate religious institutions which require traditional sexual morality of the faculty and student body. But he said that there is hope that the coercive policies of the Left can be defeated. He cited the proposed First Amendment Defense Act, and Mississippi’s recently passed religious freedom law, which protects religious institutions, as examples of how religious freedom can be defended against the sexual revolution.
Gregory Baylor said that the new academic environment is not “amoral” but a reversal of virtue, with “what used to be virtue is now vice, and what used to be vice is now virtue.” While the mainstream culture may view citizens who hold to traditional sexual morality as good neighbors, they are nonetheless viewed as “dangerous and beyond the pale,” Baylor said. He said that when the legal culture and its judges come to accept the new cultural view of sexuality, “punishment is one of the great themes” in their policy toward those who disagree. He noted that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has declared that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits sex discrimination, includes a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. While religious institutions may, according to the Civil Rights Act, require (i.e., discriminate according to) religious belief, it is not clear that they can require (i.e., discriminate according to) sexual behavior. Using the “belief/action” dichotomy that the Supreme Court has used in the past to restrict religious liberty, the cultural left “violently” insists that religious institutions can require only religious belief of their employees and students, not conduct according to religious standards, Baylor said. This, however, makes nonsense of the expression “free exercise,” especially since religious action as well as belief was recognized at the national founding, by James Madison, one of the chief architects of American religious freedom, and it is not even action, but abstinence from action, which is required of employees and students at religious institutions. Additionally, religious institutions are voluntary, and no one is required to be part of them.
The same belief/conduct controversy surrounds President Obama’s recent executive order requiring nondiscrimation against sexual orientation and gender identity among federal contractors. There was no explicit protection of religious contractors in his order. And so now “there’s a debate” about whether the “religion based” protections of federal contractors also includes “conduct based” protections for religious organizations. Baylor said that it is obvious that the government is using all the “points of vulnerability” on religious institutions to make them give up their commitment to traditional sexual morality. He also noted that in the proposed “Equality Act,” there would be a sexual orientation/gender identity antidiscrimination category added “to all federal financial assistance … This would be an amendment to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” The proposed Equality Act also exempts its provisions from any protection that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) would afford.
Finally, Baylor noted that California has had a law since 2000 attaching a “nondiscrimination string” to all state money that supports education. This includes sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion. Applied to Christian institutions, it would destroy their Christian character, since religious and sexual standards could not be applied to students and faculty in the conduct of their lives or even religious belief. It should be noted that the religious antidiscrimination category goes beyond the sexual antidiscrimination doctrine which is already becoming a problem for Christian institutions. However, California has heretofore offered a “generous” religious exemption to protect the character of religious institutions, enabling them to function by religious standards, Baylor said. Two bills now in the California legislature would dramatically reduce this exemption. The point of these bills, Baylor maintained, is “to make a statement about just how unacceptable it is for traditional religious institutions to hold traditional Biblical views about marriage.” He noted that at least one of these bills “has a significant possibility of passage.” He noted that under the proposed law, the Christian apologetic institution Biola University in La Miranda, California could not even require its president to be a Christian. Baylor said that the bill shows “the depth of animosity, frankly, that some feel towards religious institutions despite all the good work that they do.”
In response to a question, Severino said that the Human Rights Campaign Fund’s “shame campaign” was intended to discredit religious institutions, so that their exemptions from antidiscrimination law could ultimately be revoked, as is now being attempted in California. Another questioner asked if religious schools would move from California if religious exemptions there are revoked. Halverson said he thought it was “unlikely that established institutions will move, because of the significant capital investments they’ve made.” Younger institutions might move if they have little capital investment. However, it should be added that for those Christian institutions that remain, they will have surrendered their Christian character. Indeed, while claiming to serve God, they will have begun to tolerate sin, and should not be supported or participated in by faithful Christians.
A questioner asked what the nature and size of funding is for the adversaries of religious liberty. Baylor responded that homosexual liberation has been well funded and had the support of corporate America since the 1990s. “Money matters,” he said. The attack on liberty of conscience waged by homosexual activists is no longer aimed at liberal America, which is already convinced of their cause, but at conservative America, particularly “resistors in the Republican Party.” While social conservatives are clearly being outspent by their opponents, they are now pushing back with money to organizations committed to liberty of conscience. While not denying that more money is important, in referring to what is needed in this pushback, Baylor said that having more “comrades in arms” is now even more needed than money.
Marshall asked how we should assess the conflict between the leaders of big business, who support coercive pro-homosexual laws, and ordinary citizens, who seek liberty of conscience. Severino responded that “the Left has teamed up with big business in a new way. This is a very new development.” He pointed out that the most striking case was the gutting of Indiana’s religious freedom law to exclude conscientious objection from homosexuality in 2015. Many Fortune 500 companies have their own internal sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) policies, but are trying force small businesses to facilitate homosexual behavior. This is exceedingly hypocritical, since American businesses involved in homosexual activism maintain normal business relations and investment in countries in which homosexual behavior is criminal. “Big business thinks it is in its interest to do this at the moment,” Severino said, but also, some leaders of big business are “actually quite activist.” But in those states where big business is involved in the conflict, religious liberty is “supported by the people.” Severino also said that people should be “informed consumers” with companies that are prominent opponents of liberty of conscience.
Against the claim that sexual orientation/gender identity discrimination is comparable to racial discrimination, Severino said that “it’s not an issue of status, it’s an issue of conduct.” Religious institutions care about the people who are participating in them, and “care about their conduct.” It is the status/conduct difference that “gets swept away by SOGI laws, and swept away by the race analogy.” We should remind people that “it was religious institutions that were at the forefront of the antislavery movement.” He noted in particular that the courts struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage because religious couples claimed that their faith recognized no racial distinctions with respect to marriage.
In response to another question, Baylor said that the Department of Education is still interpreting Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to refer to gender identity, but not sexual orientation. This interpretation might be broader in the future. Another danger is giving religious exemptions only to schools affiliated with a primary religious body (such as a church or a denomination), and not to independent religious schools. But the “real prize,” he said, is to eliminate religious exemptions from education funding entirely, and that is what religious and social conservatives should be most worried about.
Christian educational institutions are services to God. They must conduct themselves according to Christian standards. While not houses of worship, and perhaps including and serving unbelievers, they are nonetheless a type of church, an organization which has come together to serve God in obedience to his commands. They cease to be Christian if they compromise with sin, because they are to maintain separation from sin (2 Cor. 16:17). If a Christian ministry is required to sin, it should move or close its doors, as it cannot serve God in a compromised condition. Nor should faithful Christians support such organizations.
With respect to constitutional and legal doctrine, Christian educational institutions are an exercise of religion. Mere freedom to believe is not religious exercise at all. Liberty of conscience has a long history in America, and should prevail against any effort to judge the religious conscience with respect to sexual matters. The religious conscience should be protected, not judged as “discriminatory.” There is no higher moral standard than religious duty, and for believers, nothing more important in life than duty to God. The claim that religious freedom would sanction racial discrimination is mute in America; racial segregation was a cultural practice, not a religious precept, if occasionally implausibly justified with religious arguments. Nor does Judaism or Islam give any plausible basis for racial discrimination, so in this country, religious considerations pose no barrier to racial integration. But sexual matters are of cardinal importance to most world religions, and the state must retreat from attempts to apply antidiscrimination law on sexual issues with religious bodies.
Of critical importance in the near future will be the resolve of Christians not to compromise with sin, even if this means closing beloved religious institutions in which tremendous love, work, and money have been invested, and which have done enormous good over many years in advancing the Kingdom of God. They have enormous potential to continue to do so in the future. Yet if a Christian organization is compromising with sin, it is not living in obedience to God, and thus is not a Christian organization. It should not exist and should not be supported by Christians. The U.S. and state governments have it within their power today to effectively prohibit educational institutions which are in fact Christian. But Christians have within their power, and more than that, have a duty to God, not to maintain institutions which are Christian in name only, and indeed will lose what religious character they are permitted to have if they compromise with sin. If and when the state prohibits educational institutions which are genuinely Christian, it will be a great tragedy, and cause for tears, but the unalterable commitment of Christians must be obedience to God. We know that His truth cannot change, that our duty is to be faithful to Him, and that He will prevail in the end.