It wasn’t that long ago (in the politically correct era of the ’90s) that everyone was talking about tolerance. In those days tolerance meant that the viewpoints of others, particularly those of the socially or politically stigmatized, must be granted a place at society’s table. This was particularly true on college campuses, where the exchange of ideas and a broad-minded pluralism was valued.
How times have changed – particularly on college campuses, where free speech is now at risk. At Bowdoin College, Rollins College, Vanderbilt University, State University of New York (Buffalo), and others, including the California State University system, tolerance has taken a major step backwards.
In 2011, the chancellor of the California State University system issued a policy that required recognized student groups to accept any student as a potential leader. The aim was ostensibly to prevent discrimination against students on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The result, however, was considerably broader.
Under the new policy, leadership in Christian groups must be open to any student (including an atheist). Strictly enforced, the policy opens leadership in Jewish groups to Neo-Nazis and requires Muslim groups to remain open to leadership from Buddhist monks.
Many Christian campus ministries, especially evangelical ones, require their leaders to be Christians and to affirm core Christian beliefs, such as the deity of Christ and the authority of Scripture. But universities believe this basic requirement, especially the affirmation of the authority of Scripture, poses a threat to the equality of gay and lesbian students.
It doesn’t seem to matter to university officials that these ministries encourage gay and lesbian students to attend. Nor does it matter that they require all their unmarried leaders – straight or gay, without exception – to be chaste. The real issue is that these universities will not bide another way of thinking about sexuality. So much for tolerance.
But what about first amendment rights? They’ve been swallowed up in what university officials consider to be a larger issue: the equality of gay, lesbian and transgendered students. Because they see religiously oriented student groups as a threat to such equality, they threaten them with de-recognition unless their officers sign a non-discriminatory policy statement, even though doing so opens the group’s leadership to people who do not hold its beliefs and values.
Tish Harrison Warren, writing in Christianity Today, relates her unsuccessful attempt as director of Graduate Christian Fellowship at Vanderbilt to arrive at a compromise with school administrators. She was told that requiring student leaders to affirm the group’s religious beliefs was a form of discrimination. “Creedal discrimination,” they insisted, “is still discrimination.”
How ironic. University officials discriminate against one group, ostensibly to stamp out discrimination against another. “Creedal discrimination” practiced by religious groups within a very narrow scope (the selection of their own officers) is considered offensive, but religious discrimination practiced by the university at large is acceptable. “God,” says St. Paul, “does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:11). Clearly the same cannot be said of university administrators.
Once state institutions begin discriminating against groups on the basis of their beliefs, it’s not just religious freedom that is endangered, but freedom itself. It’s time for students and faculty, including those in the LGBT community, to stand up in support of religious rights on college campuses.
The plurality celebrated in the university, along with the openness to diverse points of view that makes it possible, depends upon the free exchange of ideas. That freedom, and the academic ideals that attend it, are now at risk.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, October 18, 2014