Baptist University's Anti-Gay Pledge Causes Faculty To Quit In Droves
A university in Georgia is bleeding faculty after adding a new section to employee contracts last October. The "Personal Lifestyle Statement" requires employees to reject homosexuality, premarital sex, adultery, drug use and public drinking near campus. It also mandates that staff be active in a local church.
In an anonymous survey in April, only 12 percent of faculty and staff said that they planned to stay at Shorter University, a 139-year-old Baptist school, reports Inside Higher Ed. More than 50 resigned before the new contracts were even distributed, and certain departments, such as science and fine arts, have been "eviscerated," according to Michael Wilson, a tenured librarian for the university who's worked there for 14 years.
"Through our policies, we seek to honor Jesus Christ," the university said in a statement. "We understand that there are those who do not agree with our beliefs. We are not trying to undermine their right to those beliefs, but want to be transparent about our own."
"Where is today's American Taliban? At Shorter University," tenured Shorter professor Sherri Weiler wrote in the Rome News-Tribune. "Religious fundamentalism in any form (Muslim or Christian) is sheer lunacy in today's divided, fractured, and tormented world. True peace is only to be found in opening the doors, not closing the gates."
Wilson had planned to stay at Shorter until retirement, but essentially resigned last week. He signed the "lifestyle statement," but crossed out the line: "I reject as acceptable all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible, including, but not limited to, premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality."
Leaving Shorter is "wrenching," said Wilson, who claims that many of his co-workers knew he was gay. "I'm a pretty quiet person. But I perceive this as a great injustice." He is part of Save Our Shorter, which is a campaign against the changes.
The new policy of course discriminates against employees or applicants who are not socially conservative Christians. But as a religious educational institution, Shorter is allowed to discriminate in favor of a particular religion with any employee, even employees not connected with the school's religious activities, according to an exception granted by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The policy also discriminates against gay Americans. But in Georgia, it is legal for employers to discriminate against gays and lesbians. In February, representatives in Georgia voted to table a bill that would have extended protections to its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. In 2004, Georgia also became the fifth state in the union to amend its constitution to ban same-sex marriage; 25 others followed.
The "lifestyle statement" is the latest example of the Georgia Baptist Convention's growing influence on campus, according to some staff. In the late 1950s, the college approached the convention to help them with some financial troubles, and they formed a partnership. But when the convention started asserting more control over the board, the college tried to sever the tie.
In 2005, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that Shorter's board didn't have the power to do that. Since then, the convention has chosen the university's trustees. The college also joined the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, a network of evangelical institutions that hire mostly evangelical Protestants as faculty, and more moderate professors were allegedly urged to leave.
Evangelical protestants, like Southern Baptists, are more conservative on social issues than any other religious group in the U.S. In fact, they're the only major religious group in which a majority think that gay and lesbian relationships shouldn't be accepted by society, according to a 2011 Pew Religion Research Institute survey.
"Our relationship with the Georgia Baptist Convention is that they are the sole member of our corporation," Shorter spokeswoman Dawn Tolbert explained to the Rome News-Tribune. "We are Shorter University Incorporated. We are owned by them."
The school only receives 4.2 percent of its $50 million budget from the convention.
Some alumni are disturbed by Shorter's conservative turn. "Guess what? Not everyone at Shorter is a Baptist, and they don't need be," wrote one angry alumnus to the local paper, when the convention began asserting its influence. "For academic excellence and diversity to occur then there needs to be a wide variety of teachers with a wide variety of beliefs."
And there's a good chance that many students will be alienated too. While 63 percent of older evangelicals oppose same-sex marriage, according to the 2010 General Social Survey, only 44 percent of younger evangelicals feel the same.
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.
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