Colleges Use Religious Freedom as a Trump Card, and It’s Got to Stop
College can be a formative time in a person’s life. For a lot of people, it’s the first time they live even quasi-independently. It’s the first time they get to experience the world without the protection of adults. During college, the world starts to unfold as the wonderful and unfair place it is. Some LGBTQ-identifying students are getting an extra dose of that lesson.
While society by and large has become more accepting of LGBTQ people over the last few decades, it seems Christian institutions have been frozen in carbonite. And, as LGBTQ rights have gained steam in the past decade, the more some religious denominations have dug in their heels. However, they’ve gone beyond just preaching that homosexuality is a sin from the pulpit. Christian colleges and universities are getting into the game.
This isn’t necessarily anything new, but a spate of new allegations in just a few days shows just how widespread the problem really is. Hiding-behind-religion-so-you-can-discriminate-freely is the new black.
For example, Southwestern Christian University in Oklahoma expelled a student for getting married to another woman. The student, Christian Minard, was one semester away from graduation. The university claims that Minard violated the university’s “Lifestyle Covenant.” Minard married her partner in New Mexico, a state that has come out of the dark ages and has hopped on the marriage equality bandwagon. When the university found out, well, you know how this story ends.
That’s not the only story of a university being kind of jerky toward their LGBTQ people. The recent Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision has opened the door for Christian universities to claim that there must be a religious exemption from treating queer students as full humans. Gordon College in Massachusetts has used the Hobby Lobby decision to argue that they should be exempt from an executive order baring federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. (A position the university is apparently ready to lose it’s accreditation over.) And now George Fox University in Oregon has gotten the Department of Education’s approval to discriminate against a transgender student. Rather than let him live in a single-sex dorm, they are providing a single apartment. Because letting a transman live with other men is basically the biggest threat to their religion since forever.
You might think that, yes, these are all stories of injustices perpetrated on LGBTQ people. But these are private Christian colleges. If you don’t want to follow their code of conduct, there are a lot of other choices. I hear you. But here’s the thing. This is not really about religion. I’m sure there are people who think it is, but it isn’t. It’s about power. It’s in the Gospel of Luke’s parable of the faithful servant that Jesus says, “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required.” Or, if you’d prefer a Spiderman reference, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
There are interesting and difficult questions regarding where one set of rights ends and another begins. One thing, really the primary thing, we need to keep in mind is whether or not there is an imbalance of power. The line between exercising your religion freely and enforcing your religion upon others can be blurry, but it is there. These universities have tremendous power over the lives of their students and employees and that’s not something that can be ignored when universities start using religious freedom as an excuse to discriminate.
I’m willing to bet that most students don’t enroll in Christian colleges with the express purpose of flagrantly disregarding the school’s codes of conduct. Religious freedom is important, but there are competing values of equality, education, and non-discrimination. Religious freedom is not a trump card. It’s time we stop treating it that way.
Image credit: peasap via Flickr