Colleges No Longer Free to Be Christian?


As religious convictions are met with new legal challenges, what’s at stake for schools like Biola?

What happens when the Christian conscience conflicts with the laws of the land? The U.S. Constitution protects the free exercise of religion, but what does “exercise” include? Does it encompass the expression of faith in a for-profit business? This was a question raised by Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, this summer’s landmark Supreme Court case that examined the scope of religion freedom for closely held for-profit corporations.

What about religious nonprofits? Will relief organizations and Christian colleges maintain the freedom to define their Christian identity broadly – as a communal movement that calls us to live and serve the world for Christ, beyond a private home or a church’s walls? Religious freedom is increasingly a contested issue in our society, and it’s hitting close to home for communities like Biola University.

Yet it’s less about politics than it is about principles. What’s at stake is the freedom to be who we are – to do life together in the manner we believe God has called us.

Challenges to Religious Freedom in Christian Higher Education

For Christian colleges like Biola, religious freedom challenges have legal, financial, philosophical and theological implications.

The key legal question is how shifting cultural norms, and their accompanying legal protections, will interact with religious freedom protections for institutions that hold orthodox Christian beliefs, said Shapri LoMaglio, vice president for government relations and executive programs at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU).

The question arose in 2010, for example, with the passing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which contained a mandate for faith-based employers to offer free access through their group health insurance plans to all government-approved contraceptive drugs — including those that might induce abortions. Biola was among many religious colleges (including schools like the University of Notre Dame, Wheaton College, Catholic University and Dordt College) that responded by filing lawsuits against the Department of Health and Human Services.

Writing in the National Review about why Biola filed its HHS lawsuit, President Barry H. Corey said the most unsettling thing about the mandate was its unprecedented narrowing of the type of organization whose religious freedom is considered worthy of protection.

“Biola University is about as faith-driven and religiously oriented as a university can be,” Corey wrote. “So if we don’t fall within the protection of a ‘religious exemption,’ something is fundamentally wrong.”

More recently, the State of California’s Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) issued a letter on Aug. 22 requiring all health insurance companies doing business in California to include coverage for all abortions, including elective abortions, in all employer-sponsored insurance plans. The letter described abortion as a “basic health care service” and said “all health plans must treat maternity services and legal abortion neutrally.” Although efforts are being made to object to this new requirement, there is no provision for a religious exemption and Biola’s health insurance providers are now required to include coverage for all abortions.

Other religious freedom challenges facing Christian higher education involve sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

On July 21, President Obama issued an executive order that added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of classes protected from employment discrimination by federal contractors. This means religious organizations that are considered federal contractors, subcontractors or vendors are now subject to these new nondiscrimination rules. This executive order did not include a religious organization exemption, but it also did not remove the existing religious staffing exemption. This raises some serious concerns. For example, if a religious organization subject to the order does not exclude potential employees based on sexual orientation and yet maintains an employee conduct standard that restricts sexual conduct in accordance with its religious values, the question is raised as to whether it is lawfully exercising its right to consider religion in hiring or, instead, violating the new nondiscrimination requirements.

Much attention was given this summer to Gordon College President Michael Lindsay, who signed a petition — alongside Rick Warren, Gabe Lyons and 11 other religious and political leaders — supporting a religious exemption that balanced the government’s interest in protecting “both LGBT Americans, as well as the religious organizations that seek to serve in accordance with their faith and values.” Lindsay’s stand for religious freedom resulted in accreditation scrutiny by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). Additionally, the nearby city of Salem terminated Gordon’s contract to manage the city’s historic Old Town Hall, citing a nondiscrimination ordinance. The Lynn public school district also severed an 11-year student volunteer partnership with Gordon, citing the college’s opposition to federal hiring protection for gays and lesbians, according to the Boston Globe.

In addition to nondiscriminatory hiring practices, issues involving transgender students have recently posed challenges for CCCU members such as George Fox University and California Baptist University. The George Fox case involved a male-identifying transgender student who filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department because the school denied the student’s request to live in male student housing, instead offering the student a private room. The Education Department responded to the complaint in George Fox’s favor, granting the college an exemption to Title IX’s prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

The California Baptist case involved a female-identifying transgender student who was admitted with a scholarship in 2011 but whose admission was later rescinded when the university learned that the student had identified as transgender on a reality television program. The student’s lawsuit cited the Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on gender identity. This summer, a California Superior Court judge ruled that California Baptist’s actions were within its rights, as an organization whose primary mission is “the inculcation of a specific set of moral values.” However, the judge also ruled that the university could not bar such individuals from certain publicly accessible places on campus or from its online educational programs, which was seen as a victory by those opposing widespread exceptions to state civil rights laws for religious organizations.

These are just some of the many challenges facing Christian higher education institutions that, in the midst of a quickly changing moral and legal landscape, strive to remain faithful to deeply held Christian convictions. What are the implications of all this? Should Christian colleges be concerned?

What’s at Stake?

What’s at stake for Christian colleges and universities is our freedom to practice the convictions we hold, living in the way we believe we are called to live, Corey said.

“For us at Biola, freedom of religion means the freedom to live out our faith together in community,” Corey said. “Our nation is not made up of 300 million individuals; it’s made up of churches and families and corporations and organizations and schools and universities, each with norms and expectations and types of covenants. We deeply believe in these covenants.”

One of the things that has historically made America attractive as a melting pot refuge is that it values peaceful pluralism — the idea that people can live here with their deeply held convictions and not be subject to the whims of rulings regimes. It’s why America has always allowed groups like Quakers to refrain from fighting, as conscientious objectors, even in times of national war efforts, said Stanley Carlson-Thies, founder of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance at the Center for Public Justice.

As our society becomes more and more pluralistic, it becomes even more important “to find a way to accommodate these differences and give them space, or else it’s only one group that’s going to feel like they’re at home here,” Carlson-Thies said.

One of the chief values of religious freedom in a pluralistic society is that it serves as a check of the government’s power to define the contours of protected religious exercise.

“If you give to the government the ability to differentiate between what religious convictions are really and truly important or not, then we will wind up with a state-established religion in which the government says, ‘a vague concept of the divine is all that really matters, and all of your particularities can simply be wiped away like a building being plowed away by eminent domain in order to build a new business,’” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, at a recent summit for evangelical leaders.

If a Christian college maintains that certain standards of sexual conduct (heterosexual or homosexual) are an essential part of its expression of religious identity, should the government take the college at its word? If it comes down to the freedom of individuals versus the freedom of religious groups and institutions, whose freedom will the courts privilege? These are key questions in the issues facing the CCCU, and depending on how they are answered, the implications for Christian higher education could be costly in more ways than one.

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SOURCE: Biola Mag
Brett McCracken

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