For generations, Gordon College has quietly pursued its mission as one of the most conservative colleges in Massachusetts, and almost everyone seemed comfortable with that.
That changed last week when the president of the small Christian college on the North Shore, D. Michael Lindsay, joined a group of 14 religious leaders in asking President Obama for an exemption from a planned executive order banning discrimination in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation. Surprisingly, such discrimination is not explicitly banned now.
The group sent the president a letter in which they tried to frame their request for an exemption as a matter of religious freedom. They claimed that the proposed ban would “come at an unreasonable cost to the common good, national unity and religious freedom.”
That's quite a sweeping claim — certainly, national unity has survived far worse challenges — and it produced significant backlash both on the campus and off. Some Gordon students have been open in denouncing it, with a Facebook page devoted to calling for the school to back down.
By Monday, Lindsay seemed to back off. He posted a statement on the school’s website, apparently intended to show that, no, Gordon College wasn’t openly embracing discrimination. But, of course, it is.
“Be assured that nothing has changed in our position regarding admission or employment” began one bullet point. But if the order wouldn’t change anything, why does Gordon College need to be exempt from it?
By all accounts, it is surprising that Gordon is mired in this kind of controversy. Located in Wenham, it has quietly gone about its conservative business for eons. It’s a school that bans not only homosexual activity but all sex outside of marriage, as well as theft, drunkenness, and other sins. Most colleges gave up any pretense of trying to regulate their students’ sex lives sometime in the Kennedy administration.
Gordon officials didn’t return calls Tuesday, but they have been at pains to say that the school does not normally get involved in political activities. This was an exception, they have claimed, because it involves the principle of religious liberty.
But does it? The school’s autonomy isn’t threatened by an antidiscrimination order — unless, of course, the school really is committed to homophobic hiring practices. If Lindsay really feels so strongly about the right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, the school can always opt out of receiving federal money. Of course, there hasn’t been any mention of doing that.
The strong — and justified — denunciation of the school’s position may be heightened by the timing of Lindsay’s letter. It came in the wake of the US Supreme Court ruling last week that some companies can opt out of covering contraception as part of their employees’ health insurance. A lot of people are wary, and understandably so, about the creeping right to use religion to opt out of laws one simply doesn’t believe in. It doesn’t pacify anyone to proclaim your right to discriminate in a letter to the White House, then claim that you have no intention of doing so.
Instead of attempting to defend its right to discriminate, Gordon officials could have taken the opposite route and embraced a long Christian tradition of standing for equality. That would be far more in line with the Christianity many of us were raised with. It’s not too late to get on the right side of this issue.
Gordon College has raised its profile, but for all the wrong reasons. In his statement, Lindsay said he regrets that the school has been brought into the spotlight, and he should. But for all the talk of religious freedom, there’s only one thing being threatened at Gordon: its long history of not attempting to proclaim its beliefs at the expense of others.
That was a tradition to value.