Sunday, August 24, 2008

Moving Dialogue Forward: Church-Related Colleges and Homophobic Discrimination

Amanda and Jason,*

I hope that my choosing to post a reply on my blog doesn’t make you feel singled out. I’m doing that because I value your two replies so much, and because they raise important questions and make thoughtful comments that deserve more than a short reply in the comments section.

I’m grateful to you for your interest in the blog and for taking time to comment. Though I know I have a goodly number of steady readers in many places—my counter tells me so—I don’t always know who is reading, why they’re reading, whether my message is getting through.

It can be lonely, some days, a bit like talking to myself. Since I began this blog at a time when my teaching career had been ended precipitously without my consent, I regard blogging as a way of continuing my teaching.

And as a teacher, I have always found that I learn more from students than they do from me. I have always taught through dialogue, in which students are free to stop me at any time, ask questions, disagree with me. I don’t know any other way to teach, when you’re teaching human beings and not machines. And especially when you’re trying to teach values—and, as I’ve said on this blog, that’s the heart of the educational enterprise for me. If values aren’t internalized (and they won’t be unless people ask questions and challenge fuzzy thinking), then the process of trying to teach them will be ineffective.

I appreciate your response to my last posting, Amanda, since it helps me better understand where you and Jason are coming from. First, a huge thank you for your consistent defense of gay rights. It comes through in your passionate and well-chosen words (not intelligent enough to express yourself?: nonsense!).

I’m not sure if you have read my Thursday posting “Update on Churches of Main Street USA.” It recounts the stories of several courageous people who have defended the rights of their gay children when their own church (Methodist, in both cases) did not offer them support as they did so. In one case (that of Rev. Bill Taylor of Conroe, Texas), church members church actually made his and his wife’s lives living hell, when they refused to reject their gay son.

It is appalling that people who defend the human rights of others often end up paying a price for doing so. We who are gay sometimes have to watch our loved ones suffering some of the same crap we ourselves are put through, when they refuse to reject us. I have a nephew who was threatened with violence at a Catholic high school because he was outspoken in defense of gay rights.

So, thank you for caring and daring to express your solidarity in a world where those who do so sometimes pay quite a price. Any LGBT people in your life and Jason’s are lucky to have you as friends or family members.

And now to your comments. You say, “I think forcing religious groups to act in a way contrary to their teachings is a violation of their rights, too. I think it would be wrong, for example, for a legalization of gay marriage to lead to the government forcing churches to perform those ceremonies.”

I agree. And I welcome your reply, since it shows me I wasn’t clear enough in what I wrote previously.

I think that churches should not be forced to perform gay marriages if they have moral or religious objections to those ceremonies. Since marriage is both a civil and a religious institution, we who are gay and wish to marry can certainly avail ourselves of the former—if laws permitting this stand—even when our own churches refuse to bless or recognize our marriages.

Where I draw the line is when churches take their religious beliefs and use them to harm others, or to attack the fundamental human rights of others. There are a lot of cases that I think we might point to in a discussion like this.

I’ve focused on education, on the responsibility church-sponsored colleges undertake when they enter into a social contract to produce professionally trained citizens serving the common good. That covenant is implicitly sealed in our society by the fact that church-sponsored schools take federal (and state) funding.

I’ve focused on teacher training as one area in which church-sponsored schools have a strong responsibility (it seems to me) to prepare teachers who do not harm their students or do not impose religious beliefs on their students that impair students’ ability to be good citizens and serve the common good. How teachers treat LGBT young people is, in my view, one of those areas.

Teachers may well hold religious convictions about LGBT young folks that are condemnatory and judgmental. But even if I defend teachers' right to hold such beliefs, I would personally be in favor of prohibiting those teachers to act out these condemnatory and judgmental beliefs in the classroom. How teachers treat young folks can have a lasting effect on their psyches and hearts. Young people who are denigrated and abused by authority figures—particularly those citing religious warrants for their abuse—can be deeply scarred by such treatment.

I live in a state that has been struggling with these issues for some time now. I’ve blogged about a number of cases, cases in which not only were gay (or gay-perceived) youth assaulted in our public schools, but in which teachers facilitated the abuse, because they believed their religious beliefs required or permitted them to do so.

That’s where I’d draw the line: if you’re religious, believe what you want. But don’t harm others while proclaiming your beliefs. And, in particular, if you’re going to go into a profession in which you shape the lives of young people, don’t use your religious convictions to impair those young people and thwart their growth into confident and educated persons. (For instance, there actually are churches in parts of the U.S. which teach that people of color are “mud people” who do not descend from Adam. Though I find that belief alarming, dangerous, and totally false, I grant those churches the right to believe as they see fit. But I would be adamantly opposed to allowing members of those churches to spread that noxious “gospel” in any public school in which they taught.)

I may feel passionately about this because I grew up in a family of teachers. I had role models on both sides of my family, for generations, in the vocation of teaching. My mother’s two sisters who spent their lives teaching in the Arkansas school system often talked about their experiences in the classroom. I learned much from listening to them as I grew up.

Both constantly noted that other teachers in their schools “catered to” (that was their phrase) students from affluent and influential families. This disgusted my aunts. They made a concerted effort to bend over backwards to assist the children most in need of support.

One of the two taught in a school that had a high proportion of Jewish students. She was dumbfounded at the fact that many other teachers in the school did not want to teach those students. Sheer religious prejudice was at the heart of their refusal to welcome Jewish students. Because the principal knew my aunt was fair-minded (she actually preferred the Jewish students, since she found them intelligent and hard-working), the principal would place those students in her classroom.

Now back to the responsibility of church-sponsored schools. Personally, I agree strongly with the decision of accrediting bodies such as NCATE to require even church-affiliated schools to train teachers who do not display prejudice against gay students, and who try to appreciate and teach respect for diversity.

I also think NCATE is on the right track when it looks at the life of the university itself, to assure that the university has in place rules and regulations that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Even though the church sponsoring that university might well condemn homosexuality, it should not be producing teachers who go out into the classroom and use religion to harm gay or lesbian youngsters.

That’s where I draw the line.

Interestingly enough, there’s a discussion of this issue, from another angle, in today’s New York Times ( In Florida, which tends in a very conservative direction religiously and politically, a decision was recently made at the state level to require evolution to be taught in public schools. The reason is simple: tests show that students are not being well-prepared when they are denied sound scientific education because of the religious scruples of some teachers and parents.

Again, this strikes me as one of those areas where a line has to be drawn between the personal religious convictions of a teacher, and what the teacher should be allowed to do or teach in the school system. Public schools are not there to inculcate the particular religious beliefs of anyone. They’re there to educate diverse constituencies, to instill values necessary for civil life, and to prepare good citizens.

In my view, if people’s particular religious beliefs prevent them from buying into those core values, in what they teach and how they treat students, then they should choose a profession in which they will not have to face that quandary. I would say the same about pharmacists who seek to deny access to birth control to customers, on the basis of their personal religious convictions. This is a growing movement in some evangelical and right-wing Catholic circles.

In this discussion, I think the approach of the church-affiliated university that prepares students for professional life can’t be over-emphasized. If I correctly understand NCATE’s point about preparing teachers to deal with sexual orientation as a diversity issue, attention has to be paid to the policies and behavior of a school with a teacher education program because students learn more from what they see around them than from what is said in the classroom.

It is impossible to teach students to understand and respect gay persons in an environment in which gay persons are not even permitted to be visible—and that often happens in church-related schools. It is also impossible to teach understanding and respect when a church-affiliated institution does not even have an institution-wide policy that prohibits discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

Even when some teachers in such a school urge students to understand and respect gay persons, the real message students often learn in these institutions is precisely the opposite: that gay people should be invisible; and that, if they seek to be visible and to claim their rights, they are fair game for discriminatory treatment.

These are, unfortunately, lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way, as someone who long ago decided it was important not to apologize for who God has made me, but whose vocational calling to teach theology pointed him to church-sponsored schools. As it happens, my own experiences have been within two denominations—my own Catholic church, and the Methodist church that has played a significant role in my family’s history.

On the whole, in both contexts, Steve and I have discovered that openly gay faculty and administrators can be treated with exceptional viciousness. And here’s a point that needs to be raised about permitting churches to adhere to their teachings.

What a church teaches is not always one set of values or principles, but a number of values and principles that have to be weighed against each other, in the decisions church members make. For instance, both the Catholic and the Methodist church teach that homosexual behavior is morally wrong. The Methodist position (and this is similar to the Catholic position) is that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian life.

Yet both churches also teach that discrimination against people on the grounds of sexual orientation is morally wrong, too. Both churches have strong traditions of social justice teaching that emphasize the need of Christians to reach out to those on the social margins. The Methodist church calls itself a church of open hearts, open minds, and open doors.

Even so, both churches still permit many of their colleges and universities to continue operating with no policy prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. In states that do not have any law prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation (and this is the majority of states in our nation), an employee of such a university can be fired simply because he/she is gay. No questions asked. No legal recourse when that happens.

Many states that do not have laws protecting workers from discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation are also so-called “right-to-work” states. That is, they give the employer wide latitude to terminate any employee at will, without even providing a reason for the termination.

Unfortunately, many of those states—the ones that do not afford legal protection to gay workers and that give employers the right to terminate anyone at will without providing a reason—also just happen to be where many church-sponsored colleges are. These right-to-work states with no laws protecting gay workers tend to be in the South. It is in that area of the country that Steve and I have worked and have had our dismal experiences with church-sponsored colleges.

It’s an important educational challenge, I think, to help ordinary American citizens understand the vicious mechanisms by which institutions like church-sponsored colleges still use to boot gay human beings. These mechanisms are often hidden, and that allows churches and church-sponsored institutions to continue engaging in vicious behavior towards gay human beings which contradicts their own social justice teachings and their profession to be churches with open hearts, minds, and doors.

The fact is, few church-sponsored schools today would fire an employee outright because that person is gay. Even when this is simple to do—and it is, in many areas of the country—other, even more damaging, tactics are common, because the church or church-sponsored institution needs to preserve its public image of the good guy. Firing someone for being gay and stating that outright would lead to negative publicity that would damage many churches or church institutions. In addition, as I have noted, most accrediting bodies (including all the major accrediting bodies of colleges and universities in the U.S.) are moving to censure schools that engage in overt discrimination against gay and lesbian persons.

So how do church-sponsored schools accomplish the dirty work of booting someone because he/she is gay, while not admitting this? Here are some of the techniques I’ve seen used over the years of my work in church-owned colleges in the Southeast. And before I enumerate them, I should note that the question of sexual orientation is very often merely a side issue for college leaders who use it to clinch their dismissal of an employee. It's a convenient clinching argument to use when they want to get rid of the employee because they are threatened by that employee for other reasons, including the outstanding work or integrity of the employee. There are also economic reasons many church-affiliated colleges and universities will attack a gay employee, if he/she is open about his/her identity: this has to do with pressures from funders and alumni to withhold funding if the school doesn't ditch the gay employee.

Here are some of the techniques I've seen used to get rid of gay employees in church-related schools:

1. Work up a bogus case against the employee, claiming that he/she has not fulfilled his/her job duties.

2. When the evidence shows precisely the opposite, refuse the employee a written evaluation (in violation of accrediting standards and academic freedom), since that would give the employee a legal document to which he/she would have the right to respond, to disprove the bogus charge that he/she had not fulfilled his/her job duties.

3. If the employee raises any kind of fuss over being terminated for specious, dishonest reasons, then slander him/her.

4. Claim—as a post-factum justification for the unjust termination!—that the employee is vicious, dishonest, capable of molesting students. (Yes, that ugly old canard—gay men as child molesters—is still being used, and with effectiveness, in some church-related colleges, even against men whose professional and personal integrity is clear and impeccable.)

5. Create secret documents to place in the employee’s file, “substantiating” those “claims”—but do not permit the employee ever to see those documents and/or respond to them.

6. Bring in an outside “evaluator” known for his homophobic reputation, who has never met the employee and knows nothing about him/her, and instruct that evaluator to attack the employee in a meeting of an hour or so, then produce a bogus rationale for firing him/her.

7. Do not show that “evaluation” to the employee, while using it to justify your termination of the employee. Inform your board of trustees that the employee's termination is justified by this "evaluation" that he/she has never even seen.

8. Tell the employee that there is a “secret” reason you have been instructed by an educational supervisory agency to give him/her a terminal contract, but also tell him/her that you have been instructed not to disclose that reason.

9. If the employee appeals to a grievance committee and that committee votes for him/her to be given the “secret” reason in writing, claim that you have already told him/her the reason and the case is closed.

10. If you are in a supervisory position, encourage those reporting to the employee to undermine him/her, and then, if the employee seeks to make those reporting to him/her accountable, claim that he/she is harassing those who have harassed him,/her and remove them from his/her supervision.

11. Take work the employee has done and then give it to a subordinate to “do right.” When the original work is botched by the subordinate (with misspelled words and grammatical mistakes), and the employee notes that the problems in the “corrected” text will impede its effectiveness, allow the employee to restore it to its original form—but allow the subordinate who “corrected” it to take credit for having written it, when the text proves successful (e.g., in bringing grant funds to a university).

12. Set the employee up for failure by refusing to meet with him/her (if you are the supervisor), and then blame the employee for not meeting with you as supervisor. Tell the employee's subordinate, in whose presence you constantly berate the employee, that you refuse even to read emails from the employee, not even when the operation of the whole university depends on collaboration between you and the employee.

13. Destroy evidence of the employee’s good work, and then accuse the employee of having botched his/her assignments.

14. Inform the employee that “everyone on campus” is talking about him/her and his/her "lifestyle," even when you knew that he/she was openly gay at the time you hired him/her, and told him/her he’d be welcome.

15. If the employee seeks legal recourse against such abusive treatment, use the considerable economic and social power of the church-affiliated institution to threaten him/her legally and to destroy his/her career, to justify your abuse of him/her solely because he/she is gay, and you know you can get away with the abuse in the absence of any legal protections for the employee.

Painful stories? Yes. True ones? Yes. I’ve seen all this and more in church-sponsored institutions. And when they’ve happened and boards of trustees have every reason to know that something is radically wrong and that the behavior of the institution’s leaders violates core values of the sponsoring church (not to mention fundamental ethical values like respect for the truth), I’ve also seen the supervisory board sit by and do nothing. I've also seen one college at which the board sat by and did nothing slowly move towards chaos over a ten-year period, chaos centered on the ethical lapses I'm discussing, precisely because the board would not act on reports from gay faculty and staff expelled in an anti-gay purge.

I’m sorry to go on at length about these issues, Jason and Amanda. I do so because I think many citizens whose tax dollars help fund church-sponsored schools and many people who stand in solidarity with gay persons just don’t realize the depths of abuse still possible for gay people in some of these institutions. The stories need to be told, somehow.

I care deeply about these issues for three reasons. The first is that I care about the truth. Period. To allow lies to carry the day in our society leads to social decay. Telling the truth is fundamental to all the ties that bind us in civil society.

I care, too, because so much energy that could otherwise be spent constructively—in a world and in church institutions that desperately need talent and assistance—is spent in playing games, when people leading those institutions still insist on playing the homophobic card to get rid of employees who have proven inconvenient to have around, because they refuse to hide and pretend. Game playing tries my patience. It’s such a waste of time.

And finally, I care passionately because I care passionately about justice. At this point in history, the Christian churches are, on the whole, guilty of tremendous injustice towards gay and lesbian people. Those churches and their representatives often chide us for our anger when we are abused. They tell us we must forgive, without offering any apology for their ugly treatment towards us.

Yet as I read the Jewish and Christian scriptures, we are encouraged to hunger and thirst for justice—to clamor for it in our own lives and in the world around us—because God cares for justice. Passionately so.

And so I keep on trying, keep on talking, keep on thinking. Thank you for listening and bearing with such lengthy responses. And thank you, Amanda, for your congratulations on the length of Steve’s and my time together. ‘Twas grace that brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.

*This is a reply to Amanda's comments about my posting yesterday. Jason, I'm only now seeing your own reply, as I log on to post this new text. I will read your comment with interest after I send this posting through--and I very much appreciate it.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

I do think you're right in stating that teachers should have to go through non-discrimination training and all that. I don't know the legal technicalities of it, so forgive my ignorance on that part, but I think this is an important issue, not just on the subject of discrimination against homosexuals, but discrimination in general. Because state-run schools are secular, a teacher's religious beliefs should not be an issue for debate. Not saying it ISN'T, because I know many teachers carry their own beliefs to the table, but it SHOULDN'T be. Secular schools are supposed to provide equal opportunities for all, as much as that is possible, and I think any teacher that would discriminate for any reason does not need to be in the classroom.

On the other hand, I don't necessarily agree that these sorts of classes taught in schools that discriminate against a class of people will automatically teach a lesson FOR discrimination. People are influenced by their environment, sure, but they aren't controlled by it. Some people might, for instance, see the hypocracy in such a situation and be motivated more towards fairness. Some people might not realize anything at all. It's hard to tell a church-sponsered school what to do, because of the legal protections they have. Now, if they are receiving government funding of any sort, I think they should have to follow government rules, but I don't know which schools are self funded and which are not. Again, I'm not knowledgeable enough on the subject.

It's a hard thing to fight for, because people have freedoms on both sides, and the other side would argue that forcing them to go against their beliefs in admitting homosexuals would be a violation of their freedoms. Do I agree with that? No, but I can see their argument. If religious schools are allowed to discriminate based on religion, why not everything else? Many religious schools, for instance, only allow in members of their own faith, at least on the pre-college level, not sure about above that. And if they can say "only these people are allowed," why can't they say that with regards to straight people, or only girls, or whatever classification they choose for their private school.

The boundaries get real iffy there, and I don't think there is a simple solution.