Last year Gordon College, a Christian school just north of Boston, found itself in the crosshairs of the intolerant “social justice” Left merely because of its Evangelical faith. This week, Gordon prevailed against a dangerous threat and secured an important victory for religious liberty and academic freedom.
The ostensible pretext for the Left’s two minutes hate against Gordon was its president’s decision to sign, in his personal capacity, a letter asking President Obama to include a narrow religious-liberties exemption in his executive order banning sexual-orientation discrimination by federal contractors. The requested exemption was in fact narrower than one that Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren had supported in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) a mere eight months before.
In other words, Gordon president Michael Lindsay was asking for accommodations slightly to the left of Senator Warren. But, as I noted in a National Review print article about the controversy, the arc of leftist social history moves quickly, and it bends toward intolerance. The November 2013 version of Senator Warren was now the definition of bigotry. It was 2014 and time to reject the sins of the past.
In the effort to punish Lindsay, the Left turned its attention on Gordon, a bastion of Evangelical education more than a century old in the increasingly secular Northeast. It turns out that Gordon actually holds to Christian orthodoxy on sexuality, asking its students, for example, to refrain from sex until marriage, defining marriage as the union of a man and woman.
Across the country, Christian colleges and their supporters rallied to support Gordon and exhort its accreditor to comply with the law and respect religious liberty.
For a time, local leftists tripped over each other in their rush to punish the college. The city of Salem suspended a contract that allowed Gordon College to use its Old Town Hall. The Lynn School Committee, representing a nearby school district, unconstitutionally refused to accept Gordon’s education students as student teachers. The truly ominous threat, however, came from the school’s accreditor, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). Despite a legal obligation to “respect the stated mission of the institution,” including its “religious mission,” NEASC announced that it had met to consider whether “Gordon College’s traditional inclusion of ‘homosexual practice’ as a forbidden activity” violated NEASC’s standards for accreditation. NEASC gave Gordon one year “to ensure that the College’s policies and procedures are non-discriminatory.”
Raising the accreditation issue, however, took the story national. No longer was this merely the tale of local bullies making petty political statements. Instead, NEASC’s statement signaled potential intent to violate federal law to punish orthodox Christianity. Across the country, Christian colleges and their supporters rallied to support Gordon and exhort NEASC to comply with the law and respect religious liberty.
Gordon, under intense pressure, refused to compromise its core principles. After almost a full academic year of self-study, including discussion and dialogue with students, faculty, alumni, and members of the community, the college reaffirmed its commitment to Christian orthodoxy and thus to its policy against sex outside (traditional) marriage for students and faculty. At the same time, it found that it could improve its spiritual support to students who identify as LGBTQ. In other words, it held firm on its faith while being open to internal critique on the way in which it put its faith into practice.This week, NEASC relented, releasing a joint statement (with Gordon) reaffirming Gordon’s accreditation and even commending the school’s “continuing focus on its mission” — a direct reference to Gordon’s legal right to maintain its religious identity.
On these and other matters, I’ve provided legal counsel to President Lindsay and the college’s board for some time, and it’s gratifying to see religious liberty reaffirmed even in the face of strong academic and cultural headwinds. Had NEASC taken action against Gordon, it would have triggered a national battle that would have pulled in Congress, the Obama administration, and, ultimately, the federal courts. For now, however, sanity — and freedom — prevailed.
Gordon still faces limited local opposition and will likely still encounter petty acts of intolerance until the local Left learns to respect liberty. But Gordon will endure, having confronted a direct threat to its mission and message. In its moment of crisis, Gordon doubled down on faith. May other Christians under cultural fire do the same.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.