Gay Marriage and the Future of Evangelical Colleges

Page 15 of the new student handbook of Cedarville University tells students to obey “the laws of the land.” However, there’s at least one law the Ohio evangelical college doesn’t support: the recent Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage in all 50 states. The school’s “Commitment to Purity,” printed on page 12 of the handbook, begins, “We believe that God’s design at creation for sexual desire and orientation is within the bounds of a marriage union between a man and a woman.” Cedarville prohibits students from engaging in not only same-sex dating, but also “public advocacy for the position that sex outside of a biblically defined marriage is morally acceptable.”

The forceful tone of this handbook reflects a growing sense among evangelicals that they are being persecuted for their beliefs. Cedarville’s unequivocal rejection of gay marriage is consistent with the “human sexuality statements” for dozens of the 121 members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the nation’s premier organization of accredited evangelical higher-education institutions.

Lots of Christian-affiliated colleges have either declined to take a political stance on gay marriage or adopted more-inclusive policies to keep up with the shifting legal landscape and evolving social trends. While a few evangelical colleges have changed their same-sex policies—for example, Hope College in Michigan will now offer benefits to gay married couples—most theologically conservative Christian colleges are quietly resisting efforts to admit openly gay students. Cedarville is part of a subset of schools that are actively involved in efforts to retain traditional policies against homosexuality.

“The Bible teaches that God designed sexual activity to be enjoyed inside the voluntary bounds of a biblical marriage,” said Cedarville University’s president, Thomas White, in an email. Any activity that violates this intent “is dealt with on a case-by-case basis, with a desire to disciple the student to maturity in his or her faith and to [lovingly] restore the student to good standing with the institution that they voluntarily chose to attend.”

At the moment, there is no federal non-discrimination law that prevents schools from enforcing these policies. Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia offer protections to gay and lesbian students, but they usually grant exemptions to religious institutions. The first serious challenge to such policies came last summer, when the New England Association of Schools and Colleges asked Gordon College, a Christian school in Massachusetts, to review its ban on “homosexual practice” and determine whether it violated the association’s accreditation standards. Gordon announced in March that it had completed the review and decided to keep the ban in place.

But as gay rights have gained wider acceptance over the past few years, many evangelical colleges have found themselves facing a predicament. Policies forbidding gay relationships have brought negative media attention and increasingly frustrated students, both of which could turn disastrous for religious colleges already struggling with tight budgets and uncertain futures. In 2013, Grace University in Nebraska made headlines after it expelled a student for being in an openly gay relationship who thus violated the school’s code of conduct. Earlier this year, Erskine College in South Carolina drew widespread scorn when it publicly condemned gay relationships as “sinful” after two of its athletes came out as gay on the website And Gordon College not only attracted criticism for its ban on same-sex relationships but also lost a contract with the city of Salem when government officials learned about its rule against hiring gays and lesbians.

Meanwhile, it appears that some evangelical colleges are tentatively opening up to discussions about new LGBT policies. But the process is often uneven. For example, Illinois’s Wheaton College, Billy Graham’s alma mater, recently hosted a spirited debate about the topic on campus. The college’s chaplain’s office also hired Julie Rodgers, who has publicly called herself a “gay Christian” and argues that there’s no scriptural prohibition against seeking non-sexual intimacy with people of the same sex. “Just like a heterosexual orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for straight sex,” she wrote on her blog, “a gay orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for gay sex.” But news broke Monday evening that Rodgers has resigned from the college. “Her work schedule was consistent with the academic year and as such, she finished her time on campus in May,” a statement from the college reads. “[On Monday], Julie notified the College that she is resigning her position, effective immediately, and will not be returning in August.”

Regardless, such reasoning raises new questions: Even at schools that forbid “homosexual practice,” should gay students have to stay in the closet? Or can they be open about their orientation as long as they stay celibate like their unmarried heterosexual counterparts are supposedly doing?

Many college administrators are trying to maintain control by clamping down on pro-LGBT viewpoints on campus. Cedarville, for example, last year confiscated copies of an alternative student newspaper, according to The Columbus Dispatch. But these efforts often backfire, drawing even more attention toward a taboo subject. Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, argues that evangelical-college administrators have been “slow learners” when it comes to addressing evolving viewpoints. “They continue, in an obsessive quest for image control, attempting to squelch controversy and invariably end up publicizing the controversy more widely.” Such was the case at Cedarville, whose suppressive actions not only intensified on-campus debate but made it a target in the wider campaign against the discrimination of LGBT students at evangelical colleges.

At an off-campus event near Cedarville a while back, gay Christians held a Q-and-A session for anyone who wanted to talk openly about Christianity and homosexuality. It was there that Zach Schneider, a former Cedarville student who is straight, began to change his mind about gay Christians. “As I watched, I was struck by how different they seemed than I had been taught growing up,” said Schneider, now 22. “They were not promiscuous devils or angry atheists; they were regular, Bible-believing Christians who happened to have a different sexual orientation than me.”

Such interactions, he said, “fostered a sense of empathy and compassion that forced me to reconsider many of my other views.” Largely because of his frustration at the way gay students were being treated at Cedarville, Schneider eventually transferred to Southern Illinois University. Now a web developer, Schneider runs Cedarville Out, a website for Cedarville’s community of LGBT students, alumni, and allies.

But such tensions may prove to be minor obstacles compared to the legal challenges looming for evangelical colleges. Some mainstream media outlets, such as The New York Times, have raised questions about whether religious organizations will lose their tax-exempt status if they discriminate against legally married gay people. This possibility came up during the oral arguments for Obergefell v. Hodges. As The Atlantic’s Emma Green noted, Justice Samuel Alito referred to the evangelical Christian Bob Jones University, which chose to sacrifice its tax-exempt status in 1983 so it could continue to forbid interracial dating. (Bob Jones finally dropped that ban in 2000.) Chief Justice John Roberts likewise noted that the Obergefell decision could affect everything from married-couple housing to benefits for gay employees’ families, writing in his dissent that “there is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court.”

As of now, it’s still largely unclear how Obergefell will be interpreted on the religious-liberty front—particularly when it comes to the federal funding that provides a large portion of these schools’ operating budgets. Some analysts are skeptical of predictions that the institutions tax-exempt status will change. Yet others say that schools will inevitably have to amend their policies to remain eligible for the funding. “It seems to me very likely that, in the coming years, schools and universities that accept public funds and support will be required—as a condition of those funds—to have nondiscrimination rules that forbid discrimination on sexual-orientation grounds,” said Rick Garnett, a professor who oversees the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame’s law school, in an email. “And, these rules will not distinguish between sexual-orientation discrimination and non-recognition of same-sex marriages.”

The federal government, he added, has many different “carrots and sticks” that it can use to “pressure institutions institutions into enacting particular policies”; aside from laws such as Title IX and Title VI, grants and other funding programs typically have conditions attached to them. “Up until now, religious colleges and universities have, generally speaking, been allowed to take religion and religious mission into account in their employment, admissions, and residential-life practices,” Garnett continued. Now the question is: “What will happen if an institution's religious mission conflicts with the new understanding of sexual-orientation discrimination?”

Some evangelical colleges intentionally forgo federal funding in order to avoid government interference in their operations. For example, the financial-aid section of the website for Virginia’s Patrick Henry College states, “In order to safeguard our distinctly Christian worldview, we do not accept or participate in government funding. We believe such financial independence to be a critical component of a Patrick Henry College education.”

But many Christian colleges rely heavily on federal student loans and grants. Cedarville, for example, accepted $25.3 million from the federal government in the 2013-14 school year, the most recent year for which such data is available. If funding levels are roughly the same this year, federal money accounts about a fifth of the school’s operating budget. Azusa Pacific University in California, another Christian college whose student handbook forbids pupils from engaging in “homosexual conduct,” accepted $136 million in federal student grants and loans last school year.

What will happen to evangelical colleges if they lose their access to federal funding? The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, for its part, issued a statement in response to the recent Supreme Court ruling, arguing that the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause protects its position on gay relationships. Protections “for religious individuals and organizations to exercise their beliefs privately and publicly are not diminished by expanded marriage rights,” the statement says.

“No one knows the future but the Lord,” said White, Cedarville’s president. “As a Christian University, we must have truth in advertising, which means in this case remaining faithful to the Word of God and the Testimony of Jesus Christ. The Bible is clear on this issue, so as long as we have religious freedom in this country, then we should be able to continue receiving federal student loans and grants.

“If we lose the freedom to express our religion,” he added, “then everyone should be concerned because the government becomes the judge of what worldviews are allowable and what worldviews are not. That’s not freedom, much less constitutional.”

But some observers doubt such colleges will be able to continue to receive public funding while refusing to admit legally married gay applicants. “As cultural evolution on the issue of LGBT rights continues to accelerate, it’s inevitable that some Americans will start asking hard questions about whether it makes sense to allocate scarce public resources to institutions that are not only anti-gay, but proud of it,” said Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “For starters, can federally supported educational institutions bar married same-sex couples from living together in student housing? I doubt it.”

Meanwhile, Michael W. McConnell, the director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center, believes that government aid should not be used as a “club” to enforce conformity to any one particular value system. “The same-sex marriage decision liberated millions of people to live their lives in accordance with their own beliefs and identity,” he said. “Let’s remember that there are other forms of belief and identity likewise entitled to freedom. Let’s have more toleration all around.”