The president of a small Christian college north of Boston was among 14 religious leaders who sent a letter to the White House this week requesting a religious exemption to a planned order barring federal contractors from discriminating in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation.
“Without a robust religious exemption . . . this expansion of hiring rights will come at an unreasonable cost to the common good, national unity and religious freedom,” reads the letter, signed by Gordon College president D. Michael Lindsay as well as the chief executive of Catholic Charities USA, the executive editor of Christianity Today, prominent evangelical pastor Rick Warren, and other Christian leaders.
The letter was sent Tuesday, a day after the US Supreme Court issued a ruling providing a religious exemption in another area, deciding that family-owned businesses are not required to provide birth control to employees if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. Organizers said the letter was in the works before the Supreme Court ruling. The letter drew sharp criticism from Gordon alumni and students.
Lindsay “has made Gordon a fortress of faith rather than a place where the doors are open to people who want to be part of a conversation about what it means to be a Christian,” said Paul Miller, 29, a co-founder of LGBTQ organization OneGordon who graduated from Gordon in 2008 and worked for the school for three years before leaving because he could not come out as gay while there. “He thinks it’s important that it’s encoded into law that institutions be able to discriminate.”
Some students are planning to send their own letter to the White House supporting LGBT rights.
A Gordon spokesman said Lindsay, who became president in 2011, was unavailable to comment Thursday. But in practice, the college does not take positions on political issues and understands that many different views may be held individually by those who are part of the Gordon community, the spokesman, Rick Sweeney, wrote in an e-mail.
Sweeney pointed to another letter he said was sent to the White House on June 25 requesting the religious exemption that was signed by about 150 people, including members and leadership of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, of which Gordon is a member. Gordon did not sign.
“Dr. Lindsay agreed to add his name to [Tuesday’s letter] to affirm the College’s support on the underlying concern for religious liberty, not to take a political position for the college,” Sweeney said.
The Wenham college, which has 1,707 undergraduate and 402 graduate students, according to the president’s office, contains in its online student handbook a list of “behavioral expectations” for members of the Gordon community, which expressly forbids homosexual practice, and other activities including theft, drunkenness, and sex outside marriage, all on or off the campus.
White House officials last month announced that President Obama planned to sign the executive order that is the subject of Tuesday’s letter. No federal law currently bans workplace discrimination explicitly on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
While Obama does not have the authority to extend that protection to all Americans, he can take unilateral action that affects federal contractors, which make up nearly one-quarter of the US workforce.
The letter sent to Obama says the signatories are against discrimination.
“We believe that all persons are created in the divine image of the creator, and are worthy of respect and love, without exception. Even so, it still may not be possible for all sides to reach a consensus on every issue,” the letter reads. “That is why we are asking that an extension of protection for one group not come at the expense of faith communities whose religious identity and beliefs motivate them to serve those in need.”
However, the letter argues, an executive order that does not include a religious exemption would “substantively hamper” religious charities’ abilities to do their work. “In a concrete way, religious organizations will lose financial funding that allows them to serve others in the national interest due to their organizational identity,” the letter reads.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the specifics of the order and did not respond to questions about whether the order would include a religious exemption.
Michael Wear, who served in the White House faith-based initiative during Obama’s first term and directed faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, helped write the letter. He said its intent is to find a way to protect LGBT rights but also assures religious organizations that hire “according to their religious identity” that they will not be automatically disqualified from competing for federal contracts.
“Not all sides are going to be happy, but we can’t treat this as a zero-sum game. That’s not a healthy way to go about these kinds of decisions,” said Wear, who is based in Washington. The letter came on the heels of Monday’s Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision, which granted religious protections to for-profit corporations for the first time — a move hailed by social conservatives and slammed by women’s health groups.
Though Wear said Tuesday’s letter was in the works before the Hobby Lobby decision, some observers said it follows the same philosophy.
“I think we for a long time have been watching this campaign focused on securing a right to discrimination using religion as a guide,” said Rob Keithan, director of Public Policy for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a national organization working with other advocates to draft a response to Tuesday’s letter. “Whether or not this letter and Hobby Lobby were coordinated, it’s all part of the same movement of attempting to skirt antidiscrimination laws.”
Gordon students and alumni, too, are planning a response to Tuesday’s letter.
“We believe that the same protections should be extended to LGBT persons, regardless of the organizations they’re a member of,” said Conor Krupke, 21, who graduated from Gordon in May. While at Gordon, Krupke cofounded and coedited a blog called “Student Inqueery” about sexual identity and Christianity.
Gordon’s president, he said, does not speak for the whole community. Krupke said he is seeking signatures for the response letter from students, alumni, faculty, and staff, and plans to send it to the White House. “When things like this take place, you begin to realize how truly in the dark you are; it is difficult to tell how much progress, if any, has been made for LGBTQ+ students and faculty at Gordon over the years,” Juwan Campbell, a Gordon student and writer for Student Inqueery, said in an e-mail.
Some current and former students said that being gay at Gordon meant hiding who they were from the administration. Miller, the OneGordon cofounder who is not involved in the Student Inqueery letter, said he struggled with depression while working at Gordon and ultimately left Christianity.
“I wonder, if Gordon had been affirming of LGBT people, if I’d still be a person of faith,” said Miller. “And the reason I’m not is the place that provided the most compassionate and intellectually robust and civic-minded Christianity that I’d ever encountered told me that I couldn’t be part of their community.”