Belmont is hardly the first Christian college or university to confront pressure to reconcile religious doctrine with evolving views on sexual orientation and gender identity. What can Belmont learn from other schools? In an opinion piece in this morning's City Paper, I briefly mention the academically prestigious examples of Notre Dame and Georgetown.
Notre Dame has struggled with this issue for years. Earlier this year there was a protest at its main gate by students, faculty and local residents, who "placed thick strips of purple tape over their mouths to symbolize what organizers say is the silence forced upon gay, lesbian and bisexual students by the lack of explicit protection under University policy and the absence of a recognized student organization that represents their interests" (as reported by ND's own alumni magazine).
Notre Dame's overall approach is summed up in a "Spirit of Inclusion" document issued back in 1997, which says in part that "We welcome all people, regardless of color, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social or economic class, and nationality, for example, precisely because of Christ’s calling to treat others as we desire to be treated. We value gay and lesbian members of this community as we value all members of this community." The document goes on to defend leaving sexual orientation out of its formal policy:
After considerable reflection, we have decided not to add sexual orientation to our legal nondiscrimination clause. To make the change requested would mean that our decisions in this area would be measured by civil courts that may interpret this change through the lens of the broader social milieu in which we live. This, in turn, might jeopardize our ability to make decisions that we believe necessary to support Church teaching. We wish to continue to speak to this issue in the Catholic content that is normative for this community.
The example of Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, shows it's possible to be Catholic and fully inclusive. Calling itself a "university deeply rooted in the Catholic faith," and noting that "Catholicism's rich and diverse intellectual tradition is central to Georgetown's academic life," the university's formal policies explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment and educational programs.
It isn't hard to find examples at other religiously affiliated colleges where the lack of an enlightened policy leads to incidents like Belmont's. Another prominent Jesuit school, Marquette, stepped in it last spring when it withdrew a deanship offer from a lesbian sociologist who writes about gender identity issues after the offer had been accepted. At Benedictine College in Illinois an administrative employee lost her job last month after an announcement about her same-sex marriage appeared in a local paper.
There are lots of Christian colleges that take decidedly unsubtle views of all this, believing that sexual mores on campus should hew to a very strict and orthodox view of what the scriptural life allows. For instance, from the "Living a Biblical Lifestyle" section of the website of Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota:
We believe that sexual intercourse and other forms of intensely interpersonal sexual activity are reserved for monogamous, heterosexual marriage. We recognize that sexual purity involves right motives as well as right behaviors.
For some associated with these colleges the issue is creeping secularization that threatens the foundation of Christian education. A piece called "Christian Colleges Under Attack" in Liberty Magazine sounded the alarm:
The pressure on Christian colleges to compromise their principles, just when those principles are most needed in society, is coming from several directions. Above all is the constant need for more money. Federal government funding is often tied to the acceptance of secular values. An increasing divergence between Christian values and those in our secular society is creating extreme pressure to bear on religious education. Increasingly students and faculty are coming to Christian colleges with secular values and are pressuring the college to adopt things such as drinking on campus and coed residence halls — both contrary to the creation of a Christian college environment. Liberal faculty members often push for an "academic freedom," which allows for attacks on basic Christian beliefs under the guise that such beliefs are dogmatic. There is a push to adopt secular sexual mores, which increasingly accept adultery, premarital sex, homosexuality, and bisexuality as social norms.
Belmont wants us to think of it as cultivating "a Christian atmosphere of warmth, acceptance, and possibility," and developments at the school over the last decade make it clear that it seeks wider "acceptance and possibility" on a larger stage of academic reputation and prestige. That's all to the good, but Belmont first needs to figure out what to do about gay people. Examples from other institutions point to some models for Belmont to ponder.