GRAPEVINE, Texas — Christian college administrators were advised last week to be proactive when it comes to protecting their institutions' religious liberties and institutional identities as new laws and regulations have popped up across the nation that have threatened their Christian missions.
A panel of four Christian college presidents representing institutions located in two of the most liberal states in the United States — New York and California — convened last Thursday at the quadrennial Council of Christian Colleges and Universities' 2018 International Forum.
In a breakout session titled "Faith in Action: Politics and Policy in Changing Times," presidents of Biola University, Point Loma Nazarene University, Houghton College and Roberts Wesleyan University shared how they and other colleges in their states have responded to challenges presented to them by statewide initiatives like free tuition and legislation aimed at providing more discrimination protections to LGBT classes.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in 2015 to make same-sex marriage a constitutional right, it didn't take long for bills to be introduced in California that sought to limit the right of religious institutions to enforce campus and hiring policies related to sexual immorality and homosexuality.
According to Barry Corey, president of Biola University in La Mirada, 20 to 30 faith-based colleges in California banded together and put pressure on lawmakers in 2016 to amend S.B. 1146. The bill would have drastically narrowed Christian colleges' religious exemptions to discrimination laws provided to protect institutional beliefs on sex and marriage to just seminaries and other institutions that actually train clergy.
"It's crazy because four years ago at the [CCCU International] Forum in Los Angeles, nothing like this was really on the horizon," Corey explained. "Suddenly, it all happened between these quadannual forums we are having."
Corey said that the Christian colleges in California had little choice but to mobilize and unite.
He said Christian colleges throughout the state pulled resources and hired a communications firm to let legislators and their staffs know how the legislation could negatively impact their institutions. Corey said he was a bit surprised to learn just how little of an understanding some state lawmakers and their staffers have when it comes to Christian colleges and their positions.
Corey said there was also an effort to debunk myths about the way LGBT students are treated on their campuses.
"We were quick to criticize lawmakers because when S.B. 1146 and 1888 — two bills that were directly going after Christian higher education in California — were introduced, they were based on anecdotes, stories that were heard and information from special interest groups," Corey detailed. "No one had ever come to our college campuses to assess students who identify as LGBT to see if they were being treated poorly, not admitted or dismissed."
Part of debunking such myths requires allowing state lawmakers or their staffers to come to see how LGBT students are treated on campus for themselves, the panelists stressed.
"We realize in California that unless you are very intentional in telling your story, your story is going to be told for you," Corey continued. "The story that is told for you is going to be a false narrative in many ways as far as who you are as a faith-based college and university."
According to Corey, the collaboration of schools also mobilized a grassroots effort led by local churches and Christian leaders who pushed for a change in S.B. 1146. After pressure was applied, the state senator who proposed the S.B. 1146 removed the provision in the legislation to limit religious exemptions for Christian colleges.
Bob Brower, the president of Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, said during the discussion that Point Loma and about 10 other California schools banded together to create an association. The schools hired a lobbyist to let the interests of their schools be known in Sacramento.
"Our lobbyist knows the inside," Brower explained. "It was essential in this last legislative session."
Because of their efforts, Brower said, California Gov. Jerry Brown issued a veto of a bill (A.B. 569) just last October. That bill would have prohibited religious colleges and other faith-based institutions from having faith-based hiring policies and codes of conduct on issues like abortion and sexual morality.
For example, such a law would have made it illegal for Christian colleges to fire women because they choose to get an abortion or use contraception.
"If we can't hire [only] deeply, faithful committed Christian faculty and staff members, if that requirement goes away, there is no point to what we do," Broward contended.
"We were able to get results with the governor vetoing in the last hour of the last day a bill that could have essentially taken away our Christian mission," Brower added.
As for the colleges in New York, their struggle seemed to center around the state's embrace of a free tuition program. Under the program, students from families that make an income of up to $125,000-per-year can receive a tuition-free education at four-year and two-year state schools.
Deana Porterfield, president of Roberts Wesleyan University in Rochester, explained that one of the most important things schools must do when faced with the competition of a free state education is analyze the social and economic impact that the school has made in the immediate community and to express the advantages that going to the Christian college has to prospective students and to donors.
"We did some work with the Independent Colleges and Universities ... that we could articulate the economic impact of Roberts Wesleyan College within our region. We could count the number of people direct or indirect that we employ every year," Porterfield said. "We put together marketing materials to tell our alumni, our constituent group, our perspective students what it was that Roberts contributed in the area."
According to Porterfield, religious freedom is also an issue for colleges in New York because state lawmakers assume that religious exemptions are not needed.
"There is a unique understanding of what it means to be faith-based in New York state. The quote that I give usually is that 'New York thinks they have already taken care of that,'" Porterfield said. "As Dr. [Shirley] Mullen [of Houghton College] and I meet occasionally, we talk about how we do this in a state where the state believes that all is in alignment with the government."
In an age where political questions abound when it comes to LGBT issues and "reproductive rights," the panelists advised that all Christian colleges should audit their own statements of faith and other documents that layout the groundwork of institutional identity.
Potterfield shared how Roberts Wesleyan went through a three-and-a-half-year board review to hammer out what the school's modern-day institutional identity is.
"It took the board through the conversation to figure out who we are in correlation with the Free Methodist Church and who we are in the Wesleyan tradition. That conversation the next year then went to our faculty and staff, which has led us to a draft document that [is almost final] that talks about how do we, after we are clear in our identity, engage in the conversation within society," Potterfield said.
"I have been there three-and-a-half years. We started it the very first board meeting I was at and it has taken us to today to have that conversation. That conversation has absolutely helped when we are faced with questions like this. We are not in the same place that California is, related to the legislation that is coming out, but every day I am faced with that.
"When I am invited to a meeting where a company or an organization has provided us with $500,000 and they sit down with me and they say, 'You have this definition right here of marriage. If you take that out, we will continue to give you are grant.' My comment is, 'I don't see that going away but I can tell you how we live out our mission. Come to campus and let me show you,'" Potterfield recalled. "I am able to do that because of our institutional identity conversation and because I know where the board is on that."
Corey commented that each school's statement and of faith and policy documents are their "face" to the external public.
"I advise you all to audit your documents and your policies, how you articulate yourselves. Consider if there are ways you can change tone without changing substance," Corey said.
Brower added that school administrators may also want to have outsiders look over their documents to be sure that they are clearly worded.
"If you have language regarding sexuality identity and LGBTQ and a host of other things, have someone else outside read that because the words we use are sometimes not reflective of our intention," Brower said. "They speak to us well in house with our own language."
Houghton College President Mullen told The Christian Post after the panel that it is not in the best interest of Christian colleges for them to "soft-peddle their beliefs."
"Everybody believes that it is to our advantage in the CCCU to have really strong statements about these things," Mullen said. "It's actually more important than ever that we be explicitly clear. That is what I see within the CCCU at large."