Christian colleges divided on response to SCOTUS
NASHVILLE (BP) -- Though some Christian colleges and universities are extending benefits to employees' same-sex spouses in the wake of the Supreme Court's nationwide legalization of gay marriage, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities says it sees no legal reason for institutions of higher education to do so.
Shapri LoMaglio, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities' vice president for government and external relations, told Baptist Press Christian colleges and universities are not obligated by the Supreme Court's June 26 ruling to adapt employment, admissions or other policies to recognize same-sex marriage.
CCCU is an association of "181 intentionally Christ-centered institutions around the world," according to the group's website.
"The court's affirmation of the First Amendment ensures that institutions will be able to maintain policies consistent with their religious convictions," LoMaglio said in email comments. "The new legal status of national same-sex marriage paired with the First Amendment can be balanced to ensure that our country affords civil rights to all people, including religious people."
Christian institutions of higher education do not face an immediate threat of losing their tax-exempt status or being held liable for discrimination as long as they "ensure that all of their policies are clearly tied to their religious beliefs," LoMaglio said.
"At this point, there is no reason to believe that religious institutions, who do immense good by educating first-generation and low-income students, providing thousands of hours of volunteer time to their communities, and are institutions essential to the fabric of their communities, would be targeted to be penalized in this way for their longstanding religious beliefs," LoMaglio said. "The test for tax-exemption is public good, and our institutions absolutely serve the public good."
Still, Belmont University in Nashville and Hope College in Holland, Mich., say they are offering benefits to the spouses of all legally married employees, including same-sex spouses. Neither Belmont nor Hope is affiliated with CCCU.
"Belmont has had a longstanding practice of not discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation," Belmont vice president for administration and university counsel Jason Rogers told BP in an email. "This practice was confirmed in a written policy in January 2011.
"We were first asked to extend benefits to legally married employees of the same gender a couple of years ago. Since Belmont doesn't discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, we extended benefits to same-sex couples at that time and continue to offer employment benefits to legally married same-sex couples today," Rogers said.
Belmont formerly was affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention but ended that relationship in 2007. In 2011, the university added sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy in the wake of controversy surrounding the departure of a lesbian soccer coach.
Hope College, which is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, announced its decision to extend benefits to same-sex spouses in early July. But the college said same-sex weddings will continue to be forbidden in its chapel.
"In employment policy and practice, Hope College has always followed the state's legal definition of marriage," Hope President John Knapp wrote in a statement, according to Christianity Today. "Spouses are eligible for benefits, so long as their marriage is legally recognized by the State of Michigan."
After same-sex marriage was legalized in Indiana last fall, the University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary's College both granted health care and other benefits to same-sex couples, CT reported.
Westmont College, Wheaton College, Azusa Pacific University and Messiah College all told CT they do not plan, in light of the Supreme Court ruling, to change their policies upholding traditional marriage.
Samuel W. "Dub" Oliver, president of Union University, wrote in the journal First Things that he is "deeply concerned about the impact the Supreme Court's ruling might have on faith-based and other educational institutions" that hold to a traditional definition of marriage.
Based on statements made by U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli during oral arguments before the high court, Oliver expressed concern that Christian colleges may lose multiple sources of government funding if they refuse to acknowledge same-sex marriage in their policies.
"There are more than 1,700 religiously-affiliated colleges and universities in our country, the majority of which hold to religious traditions that celebrate sexual intimacy within the bonds of marriage between one man and one woman. These institutions will not abandon these convictions for any tax benefit," Oliver wrote.
"Because the Court found a constitutional guarantee to same-sex marriage," he continued, "will faith-based institutions be faced with a decision to deny their convictions or lose their tax-exempt status? Will their students be denied Pell grants and other forms of direct-to-student government aid? The consequences could be catastrophic for private, faith-based education, secular education and the common good."
Professors from at least three Christian higher educational institutions signed a statement affirming the Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling and calling for additional steps "towards true equality for LGBTQ individuals." Among the signatories of "Evangelicals Respond to SCOTUS Ruling for Equality" were Daniel Kirk of Fuller Theological Seminary, David Gushee of Mercer University and Mark Achtemeier of the University of Dubuque.
Other notable signatories included Danny Cortez, pastor of New Heart Community Church in La Mirada, Calif.; author and speaker Brian McLaren; and Justin Lee, executive director of The Gay Christian Network. After signing the document, Kirk announced on his blog that he would be leaving Fuller following the 2015-16 academic year. Fuller's Community Standards define marriage as "an unconditional covenant between a woman and a man."
Kirk, associate professor of New Testament, wrote in announcing his departure, "For a small window of time, I caught sight of a Fuller in which integrity on the sexuality issue meant having conversations whose faithfulness was measured by standards of academic investigation and conversation. For now, Fuller has chosen a different route. Integrity means ensuring that the stated position of the school is upheld and affirmed and not called into question."
In related news, at least two Democratic U.S. senators told the Weekly Standard they believe religious schools could lose their tax-exempt status for refusing to recognize same-sex marriage in their policies.
Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland said, "You have the freedom to teach, to preach the way you believe without losing your tax-exempt status." But "if you are affecting the rights of third parties, then you've crossed the line."
Cardin added, "Employment is subject to protections. I'm not sure how it applies to Christian-run schools."
Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois said deciding whether to revoke tax exemptions for schools upholding traditional marriage is "getting into a challenging area." He would "have to think about it long and hard."
Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats, said they would not revoke the tax-exempt status of religious schools that oppose gay marriage.