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Last Tuesday, on the heels of the Supreme Court’s controversial Hobby Lobby ruling, a number of prominent evangelical leaders sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking for a religious exemption from his expected executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation in their hiring practices.
Among the sponsors was D. Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College, a Christian liberal arts school on Massachusetts’ North Shore. The executive order is aimed at federal contractors and would not directly affect Gordon College, and Michael Lindsay is the only college president who signed on to the letter. President Lindsay’s decision to add his name drew immediate ire from the Gordon College community, as reported in The Boston Globe.
As an alumnus of Gordon College and a former adjunct faculty member, I am among those who were sorely disappointed to see Gordon dragged into a political minefield by President Lindsay, who assumed his post just three years ago. Gordon is one of only two evangelical colleges in New England, and it has been seen as an outlier; it is distinct from other evangelical schools in many ways, including in its practice of staying out of politics.
But Gordon College’s reputation aside, there is a more disturbing issue here — that of evangelical Christians asking President Obama for permission to discriminate under the auspices of seeking the common good. The letter signers suggest that without an exemption, religious organizations will be harder-pressed to provide the services they offer, but this is simply not the case. While they will be forbidden from discriminating based on sexual orientation, they will not be prohibited from discerning based on religious beliefs and lifestyle.
There is an important difference between discrimination — which excludes someone based on some aspect of his identity — and discernment in the hiring process. Many religious organizations require applicants to sign a kind of “community covenant,” which ensures that their employees’ beliefs and lifestyles align with the institutional mission. This is a matter of discernment, and, as a hiring practice, it is under no threat from the Obama administration or anybody else. For decades, this right has been protected by an exception written into Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the code that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Additionally, since a 2002 executive order signed by President George W. Bush, religious organizations have been allowed to consider religion in making hiring decisions.
What President Lindsay and the other signatories of the letter to President Obama are asking for, however, is the ability for federal contractors to deny employment to a job seeker based not on what she believes, but on who she is. While it is likely that some of the signatories understand sexual orientation to be a matter of personal belief, it is widely understood to be a matter of identity.
It is very likely that if a gay person applied for a position at a Christian organization, he or she would not be hired on the grounds of differences in beliefs or lifestyle, and this is to be expected. An unmarried heterosexual person who is living with a significant other would similarly be disqualified. But both gay and straight candidates should be fairly considered.
But what is most disappointing to me, as a Christian, is the message that is sent when prominent evangelical Christian leaders express a desire to discriminate. Despite the fact that they don’t actually speak for many non-evangelical Christians, the image they propagate is often ascribed to all Christians. But the truth is that many of us live with the tension of being open and accepting in an ever-changing world while maintaining adherence to ancient creeds.
It’s a gray area, certainly. It is easier to, as the letter writers have done, jump the gun and ask for an exemption. But though it is easier, it is not right. Evangelical Christians should, at the very least, be willing to offer equal opportunities to all people regardless of race, color, gender, and, yes, sexual orientation. They needn’t hire those who don’t align with their beliefs; they can discern without discriminating.
While this balance is difficult to achieve, the Gordon College I remember actually modeled what it could look like to live in a community that accepts a variety of perspectives without compromising core values. This tension was manifest in the college’s old slogan, “Freedom within a framework of faith.” That slogan is long gone now, as is, it seems, some of that spirit of freedom.
Members of the Gordon College community have been passing around a petition to be delivered to President Lindsay expressing their disapproval of his decision to sign the letter to President Obama. To date, it has received over 2,500 signatures, well on the way to meeting the next goal of 3,000. The petition elucidates this tension; it states: “While we recognize the variety of beliefs based in Holy Scripture, we do not believe that there is a Biblical requirement to refuse employment to people of LGBT sexual orientation.”
On Monday, President Lindsay responded to the criticism in a letter to the Gordon community on the College’s website. He recognizes that Gordon typically avoids getting involved in political issues, and writes that he regrets “that the intent of this letter has been misconstrued, and that Gordon has been put into the spotlight in this way.” He frames the issue as a matter of religious liberty and insists that his action does not represent a change in Gordon’s policies.
Lindsay writes, “We have never barred categories of individuals from our campus and have no intention to do so now. . . . As long as a student, a faculty member, or a staff member supports and lives by our community covenant documents, they are welcome to study or work at Gordon.”
President Lindsay seems to understand the distinction between discernment and discrimination, and he recognizes that the ability to discern is not under threat. This is heartening, but in light of this, the letter to President Obama asking for permission to discriminate appears even more unnecessary and, it seems, politically motivated.
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.