Claiming that the “culture of heteronormativity” at Azusa Pacific University has created “chaos, confusion, and dissonance” for the university’s LGBT community, Erin Green, a recent APU graduate, was determined to change that culture. Co-executive director of Brave Commons, a national organization that aims to remove barriers to full inclusion for LGBT students at Christian universities, Green has spent more than a year in negotiations with administrators at APU to eliminate the traditional Christian university’s policy banning romantic relationships among same-sex students.
For a week or so, it seemed to all pay off for Green and her LGBT allies on APU’s campus in Southern California. In mid-September, APU administrators published a revised statement on human sexuality that no longer prohibited “romantic same-sex relationships.” The new document deleted a clause that listed forbidden sexual behaviors, and removed the statement, “Heterosexuality is God’s design for sexually intimate relationships.” It also dropped longstanding language that homosexual acts are “expressly forbidden by Scripture.” And it created a same-sex support group called Haven, described by one APU university representative as “a pilot program meant to provide an officially recognized space for LGBT students on campus in order to reduce feelings of isolation and promote a sense of belonging.”
In announcing the policy changes in a written statement to Christianity Today, APU officials claimed that the “change in policy does not change practice…We assessed our student code of conduct and made adjustments, much like other Christian schools have.” Bill Fiala, APU’s associate dean of students, told reporters that “the change that happened with the code of conduct is still in alignment with our identity as a Christian institution. The language changed but the spirit didn’t…Our spirit is still a conservative evangelical perspective on human sexuality.”
Maybe not. It certainly seems that the Board and some on the faculty did not agree. A week after the policy was implemented, it was rescinded by the Board of Trustees. In an October 3, 2018 radio interview, David Poole, the chair of APU’s Board of Trustees, said that “the process got out in front of the Board” in making the change to policy before receiving Board approval. Reinforcing APU’s commitment to “remaining at the table in ways that are appropriate with our mission,” Poole reiterated that “we welcome all students…and have attempted to engage all students in a dialogue on all the important issues of life.”
Poole’s concerns about retaining the biblical mission of the school were echoed by writing professor Barbara Nicolosi Harrington, who published a letter to the APU Board warning that “the current nonsensical policy that would encourage students to engage in romantic homosexual relationships, but hope that they will stop short of having sex outside of marriage, connotes that homosexual relationships are as healthy and normal as heterosexual ones…We know as traditional Biblical Christians that this is not so, and we fail our students in our primary duty as Christian educators if we assent to this.”
Harrington was especially concerned that the policy change was made “without any consultation of the faculty and was snuck in in darkness.” It is likely that there was some faculty, staff, and administrative support for this change in policy. While it is clear that it was initiated by recent alums and individuals external to the university, Harrington acknowledges the possibility of faculty complicity when she writes that “certain APU courses, particularly in the theology, Biblical studies, global studies, and social justice arenas, expose students to radical beliefs that deride and malign traditional Biblical Christianity.”
Although there may be an academic component to creating fertile ground for heretical teachings and behaviors on the traditional Christian campus, the far more likely force for the major policy change on same-sex romantic relationships is advocacy beyond the campus walls—from alumni and their LGBT allies outside the university. Disgruntled alumni from Christian and Catholic colleges—many of them from the LGBT community—are increasingly using their voices to lobby their alma maters on contested issues including gender identity, reproductive rights, and same-sex relationships. Their goal to be “change agents” is often noble, but their demands may not be shared by other alumni, current students, faculty members, and staff. Often, as in the case of the APU policy change, the demands of the alumni required the Christian university to surrender its biblical mission.
Obviously, the alumni advocates do not see it this way. In an interview with reporters at the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, APU graduate Erin Green said, “We poured our hearts out, were vulnerable, and relived our trauma telling our stories, telling stories of previous students who were damaged or hurt in some way by the institution, which had action taken against for being gay or being in a same-sex relationship.” Disappointed that the APU Board of Trustees reversed the policy “that we worked so hard to achieve,” Green posted a Facebook video that she called a “Call to Action” to ask for support for “the LGBTQ students at APU whose trust was completely violated today and whose stories were exploited.”
Marginalizing biblical teachings on sexuality, one grant at a time
Brave Commons “seeks to elevate the voices of LGBTQ students working within and beyond Christian universities in the United States,” according to its website. Founded in 2016 as a non-profit, Brave Commons calls itself “a bold and subversive Christian movement of intersectional queer glory: healing and working toward robust justice for all.” Toward that goal, Brave Commons helps students “make public statements via sit-ins or demonstrations to bring attention to abuses or toxic rhetoric and abusive theology.” Of course, defining “abusive theology” would be contested terrain on a traditional Christian campus.
And that is the crux of the problem. The initial APU shift could have impacted the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities’ attempt at a united stand on institutional religious freedom regarding sexuality. According to Christianity Today, when Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College added sexual orientation to their nondiscrimination policies in 2015, opening the door for the schools to hire staff and faculty in same-sex marriages, Union University and Oklahoma Wesleyan University quit the CCCU in protest.
While this debate is fairly new to traditional Christian colleges and universities like APU, most of the nation’s more than 230 Catholic colleges and universities have embraced the Brave Commons perspective. Many of these Catholic institutions have received generous funding from outside organizations to enable them to do just that. Jon Stryker’s Arcus Foundation and Tim Gill’s Gill Foundation have made their aims explicit in their grant-making materials and on their IRS 990 reporting forms. In their filings to the IRS, the Arcus Foundation has described itself as a private grantmaking foundation that supports nonprofit organization working in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender human rights. Arcus has provided money to Catholic colleges, as well as progressive faith-based organizations that are working toward “full inclusion of the GLBT community.” The Arcus strategy has been to help Catholic colleges and universities convince students of the goodness and morality of gay and lesbian behavior by providing large sums of money to these institutions. Arcus awarded a $100,000 grant to “hold and disseminate information from a series of forums at four academic institutions in order to expand the current discussion on homosexuality within Roman Catholicism to include the diverse opinions of progressive Catholic thought leaders and theologians.”
Catholic colleges have long claimed that accreditors’ and state legislative demands have forced them to be receptive to hosting LGBT support groups, and holding gay dances and drag shows. But this is not true. In 2016, when a California state senator proposed withholding state funds from schools that ask for religious exemptions from sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination policies, APU and Biola joined several other Christian schools in a successful protest to push back the attempt on religious freedom grounds. Implementing policy changes such as those announced and then rescinded by APU could seriously undercut the religious freedom legal argument.
When asked about the APU policy changes by Inside Higher Ed, Paul Carlos Southwick, a lawyer with experience defending LGBT clients, suggested: “The most legally significant thing is that APU would have had a better defense to a sexual orientation discrimination claim prior to its amendment to its human sexuality policy, at least in respect to a certain type of claim,” he said. From a religious freedom perspective, “under the old statement [recovered and re-implemented by the APU Board] it would have strong grounds to defend its actions, but it could not make the same defense using the new statement,” Southwick said.
What this indicates is that those religious colleges that are unambiguous about their mission, and fully committed to hiring for mission, have the strongest defense against encroachments upon their religious freedom.
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