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The looming threats to religious colleges

As support for gay rights grows, religious schools of all shapes and sizes face pressure to change policies on sexuality, gender and same-sex marriage

Photo Illustration by Alex Cochran

As a student at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Claire Murashima was taught to ask big, scary questions and trust that God would be present in the answer.

She had that lesson in mind last fall when she took the largest leap of faith of her life.

Murashima had just been elected student body president of the small, religious school and wanted to use her power to lead meaningful conversations about gay rights. She wrote an editorial for the student paper publicly coming out as bisexual, and then brought it to school leaders before it was published to prepare them for what she was going to do.

“I didn’t want to go behind their backs in any way,” she said.

What Murashima did want was the answer to a big, scary question. She wanted to know if Calvin could become a campus that served the needs of gay students while also celebrating religious values.

“I wasn’t pushing for a specific political outcome,” she said. “I wanted LGBTQ people to know my school is a place for them.”

As support for gay rights grows across the country, religious schools of all shapes and sizes face the same question, and it’s not just students seeking a response. Policymakers, donors, professors and other stakeholders are all wondering whether faith-based colleges and universities can better care for members of the LGBTQ community without sacrificing the religion-related policies that help drive their success.

So far, few institutions have fully engaged with the debate, but, soon, it will be impossible to avoid. Democrat-led policy proposals in Congress and a lawsuit filed this spring by dozens of former Christian college students are putting pressure on religious colleges and universities from the outside, as students like Murashima put pressure on them from within.

In the near future, religious schools will have to take a leap of their own and trust God to help them find a path forward. The whole world should be rooting for them to find their way, said Shirley V. Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which serves more than 150 North American schools.

“Christian higher education produces committed, compassionate, convicted citizens who want to engage deeply in this world, not in spite of their faith but because of their faith,” she said.

Religious schools challenged by interests of diverse stakeholders

Religious colleges once dominated the American academic landscape. But, over time, they’ve lost ground to larger, secular institutions that don’t have to navigate faith-related restraints.

“If you look at the history of higher education, the clear trend has been to start off as religiously affiliated and after some time, decades or centuries, look just like secular universities. We have to keep reminding ourselves of our mission,” said Brigham Young University President Kevin Worthen to the Deseret News in 2019.

Today, there are still hundreds of religious colleges and universities in the United States, but most are quite small. However, when it comes to responding to the needs of underserved communities, the schools punch above their weight, Hoogstra said.

“Faith-based schools serve and graduate a diverse population of students, including DACA recipients, incarcerated students, low-income students, adult learners and first-generation students,” she said.

Partly because of the unique make-up of their student bodies, many faith-based schools would be forced to close if they lost access to federal aid. Daniel Bennett, who leads the political science department at John Brown University, a Christian school in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, estimates that around 95% of faith-based schools depend on federal funding to stay open.

For these institutions, alumni and denominational support is also crucial. School administrators must try to balance the needs and interests of students and faculty with the demands of these often much more conservative benefactors, said John Hawthorne, who recently retired from Spring Arbor University, a Free Methodist school in southern Michigan.

“If you try to appease those conservative voices, it’s going to put you in a place that makes it hard to hold your students and faculty,” he said.

Although religious colleges come in many forms, nearly all share the goal of helping students grow spiritually and academically at the same time. School leaders integrate faith with learning, whether they’re in the campus chapel or a lecture hall.

“There’s this idea that we can prepare students to interact with the world through the lens of and totally consistent with their faith. There’s no compartmentalization,” Bennett said.

As someone who grew up religious but attended public elementary and secondary schools, Bennett understands the pain that can come from feeling like you have to check your faith at the classroom door.

To him and other advocates of faith-based higher education, the invitation to see religious values as an academic asset is a miracle of sorts.

“Going to a Christian school for college was a breath of fresh air for me,” Bennett said.

However, the religious freedom offered by faith-based colleges comes with some notable strings attached. Students must often agree to abide by a moral code, which typically includes prohibitions on drinking, smoking and premarital sex.

In recent years, these codes of conduct and related policies on sexuality and marriage have landed many schools in hot water. Former students, accrediting bodies and policymakers, among others, have questioned whether faith-based schools are using religion as an excuse to be cruel.

The “Christ-centered focus and Gospel lens used by our Christian institutions is becoming increasingly counter-cultural,” Hoogstra said.

But she and other advocates of faith-based higher education object to the notion that religious schools are singling out LGBTQ students for mistreatment.

“Our goal is that all students be treated with respect, dignity and love,” BYU officials said earlier this year. The school’s Office of Student Success and Inclusion manages individual outreach and social events for students who are part of the LGBTQ community, while LGBTQ students sit on many department committees and councils across campus.

“These efforts and others will continue as we work to fulfill President Worthen’s vision that every student feel fully a part of the BYU community,” noted BYU Student Life Vice President Julie Franklin.

Under federal law, faith-based colleges can request a religious exemption to nondiscrimination rules. If granted, they can sidestep certain legal protections for the LGBTQ community and others and continue enforcing their most controversial policies, like bans on same-sex marriage.

If successful, the current lawsuit brought by former students at religious schools would force the Department of Education to stop offering these exemptions. Faith-based colleges are also facing pressure from Democrats in Congress, many of whom believe LGBTQ rights protections outweigh religious freedom law.

Any policy change, whether it originates in Congress or an executive order, would be challenged in court, where the hundreds of judges appointed by former President Donald Trump are unlikely to rule against religious schools, Bennett said.

However, those judges won’t always dominate the legal system. In the near future, religious schools could be forced to make some very difficult decisions about LGBTQ rights.

“That reckoning is coming — it’s just a matter of when,” Bennett said.

Hoogstra hopes policymakers and judges will continue to respect the strong religious freedom protections offered by the Constitution.

Religious schools “subscribe to a number of sincerely held biblical convictions, and the right of our institutions to teach and instill those convictions in the next generation of believers is protected by the First Amendment,” she said.

LGBTQ students at religious schools seek greater representation

Growing up, Murashima didn’t know it was possible to be both Christian and queer. No one fit that description in her family or church and so, when she began questioning her own sexuality, she felt confused and alone.

“I didn’t tell people because I was too ashamed,” she said.

That pain and fear was on her mind as she prepared to come out to her campus community. She felt like publishing the editorial on her sexuality was an act of love for her younger self.

“My biggest desire was increasing representation,” said Murashima, who identifies as bisexual and queer. “I just wanted to show students at Calvin and parents of students and kids growing up in the Christian Reformed Church that they’re not alone if they’re LGBTQ.”

At other religious schools, a growing group of people are working toward similar goals. Students are increasingly speaking up in support of gay rights and calling on school leaders to do the same.

Nationwide, half of white evangelicals and Latter-day Saints and more than three-quarters of white mainline Protestants and Catholics who were younger than 30 in 2017 support same-sex marriage, according to PRRI.

Importantly, many would say they hold this position because of their faith, not in spite of it.

“The most vocal, affirming allies or members of the LGBTQ community on my campus identify as Christians. They see supporting gay rights as a way to further realize their Christian identity,” Bennett said.

Hawthorne came to a similar conclusion while leading a recent class discussion about the tension between the Catholic Church and its gay members. Among his students, opposition to LGBTQ rights was the exception, not the rule.

“There were only a couple students who asked, ‘Why aren’t we saying (gay marriage) is a sin?’ The rest of them were saying, ‘How can you treat gay people like this?’” he said.

Growing support for gay rights on Christian campuses is giving some LGBTQ students the courage to come out. As they do, many of these young people are asking school officials for help making the gay community on campus feel less anxious and alone.

Murashima said that, when she came out, she wasn’t trying to scandalize her campus or “burn it down” with demands for political or theological change. Instead, she wanted to use her preexisting relationships with school officials to ensure that hard but necessary conversations about what it was like to be gay at Calvin would finally take place.

“I felt like they were on my team, and that I was on their team,” she said. “Some of them told me, ‘These are conversations that needed to be started. Thank you for speaking up.’”

Other Christian college students advocate for a less measured approach. Those involved in the lawsuit on school funding, for example, demand nothing less than immediate policy change.

Both types of students can make life difficult for leaders at Christian schools, Hawthorne said. To more conservative alumni and donors that also demand officials’ attention, even starting a conversation about religious support for LGBTQ rights feels like a dangerous act.

“The mindset of students has changed dramatically. The mindset of the alumni and donors to Christian colleges has not,” he said.

Growing support for LGBTQ rights presents challenges for religious schools and faith-based institutions

In America today, faith-based schools are far from the only religious institution facing an uncertain future.

Church pews are emptying. Nonprofit budgets are shrinking. Religiously affiliated foster care agencies are losing government support.

In response, some faith groups are choosing to make a radical change. For example, the largest Christian adoption agency in the country announced earlier this year that it would begin serving same-sex couples who want to foster or adopt.

“They got a lot of flack from conservative Christians for that,” Bennett said. But the agency’s position was that if they didn’t update their policy, then they’d have to close.

“They said it was best for children if they continued to foster,” Bennett added.

The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities made a similarly proactive move in 2019 when it called for passage of a piece of federal LGBTQ rights legislation called the Fairness for All Act. Like the better-known Equality Act, the bill would protect gay and transgender Americans from discrimination in most areas of public life, but it would also ensure religious institutions, including schools, could operate according to their beliefs.

“The Fairness for All Act is both principled and pragmatic — it is principled in providing a clear and demonstrable way for people of faith to love our neighbor in the civic context, and pragmatic in that the bill makes explicit many religious protections that are important to a rich and vibrant civil society,” Hoogstra said.

The council’s embrace of the bill, like the adoption agency’s policy change, is controversial within the conservative Christian world. Some faith-based schools would choose closure over showing any level of support for LGBTQ rights, Bennett said.

He and other advocates of faith-based education hope it won’t come to that. There’s still time for religious schools to regain their footing if they’ll start looking for solutions instead of dwelling on their fears, Hawthorne said.

“I think these things are possible but not when one is operating out of such a negative view of the future,” he said.

Murashima is among those hoping religious colleges and universities will be around for years to come. Being at a faith-based school made it hard for her to come out, she said, but it also made it hard for her to abandon her faith, which, for her, was a good thing.

“I would not have had the confidence to come out publicly and be OK with my faith and still be so strong with my faith if it wasn’t for my Calvin education,” said Murashima, who graduated in May.

She added, “I’m glad that it was a given. It was a given that all my mentors, professors, administrators and friends would all have the desire to help me keep my faith.”

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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