Article

The top 10 religious liberty threats for Christian higher education

Jul 2, 2015

In the wake of the recent Supreme Court marriage ruling, risks to religious liberty for Christian higher educational institutions have gained increased attention. During the oral arguments for the case, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said religious liberty was “certainly going to be an issue” for schools that oppose same-sex marriage.

But much of the discussion about religious liberty risks for schools is abstract and theoretical. What are the particular areas where religious liberty could be threatened at a Christian college or seminary? What are the specific religious liberty risks for Christian higher education? Here is a brief sketch of the top 10 religious liberty threats for Christian schools:

  1. Accreditation issues: Christian schools face increased scrutiny from their accreditors. Look no further than Gordon College’s experience over the past year, which included a probe from their accrediting agency. As the Department of Education likely adjusts sexual orientation and gender identity policies in light of the Supreme Court ruling, it puts federal educational regulations on a collision course with Christian convictions in a way that could jeopardize accreditation.
  2. Tax issues: Christian schools have become ground zero for controversies over whether religious institutions should be able to retain tax-exempt status. With calls already developing to strip tax-exempt status from religious ministries, Christian campuses are at heightened risk. Because many schools have sprawling campuses, the property tax consequences alone of losing tax-exempt status could be devastating.
  3. Financial issues: One of the greatest threats to Christian schools is the potential financial costs of religious liberty consequences. The most commonly cited financial risk is the potential elimination of federal funding such as pell grants. But research grant writing and other revenue sources could also be at risk. Most importantly, access to the federal student loan system could be in danger. Tuition revenue generated from students using federally funded loans makes up a much higher percentage of a school’s budget than direct federal funding to the school.
  4. Donor issues: Because private Christian education depends heavily on generous donors, there are increased risks for schools. If a school loses its tax-exempt status, donors would no longer be able to make tax-deductible gifts, which could limit giving. But, the more immediate risk is the potential for donor stigma if their gifts to a conservative school are vilified in the public. Can donors afford the potential reputational risk of giving to a Christian school?
  5. External relations issues: There are growing risks with external constituencies such as denominations and alumni. Alumni backlash over conservative policies is evident even at schools such as Wheaton College. Denominational risks could develop if schools become out of step with the shifting perspective of their denomination.
  6. Student issues: The student body ramifications are legion. How can schools establish and enforce a student conduct code forbidding homosexual practice without creating the perception of discrimination? If schools provide married student housing, can they restrict same-sex married couples from using it? Will the NCAA mandate conformity on sexuality issues in order for schools to participate in organized college athletics?
  7. Community issues: As the community around Christian schools shifts, their views on marriage and sexuality will be increasingly at odds with one another. Just as Gordon College’s education students lost access to service in the local school district, there may be consequences for partnerships between schools and their communities. While many schools are currently perceived as a benefit to their community, they may be increasingly seen as a liability.
  8. Recruiting and retention issues: Student and faculty recruiting and retention may become more difficult for Christian schools. Will students be willing to attend and graduate from a college facing increasing cultural marginalization? Will Christian schools be able to deny entry to prospective students who identify as gay or are in a same-sex marriage? Will prospective faculty or staff members be willing to come on board when they know that (1) the viability of Christian higher education is increasingly at risk and (2) working for a conservative school could hamper their future job prospects in the academy?
  9. Employment issues: Hiring practices for Christian schools are now in the crosshairs. Will schools be able to hire faculty and staff in accordance with their Christian convictions? Additionally, job placement for graduates could become more tenuous if their alma mater is stigmatized in the culture for its conservative views on marriage.
  10. Doctrinal issues: The Supreme Court ruling will force a crisis of doctrine for many Christian schools that haven’t solidified their confessional convictions. Schools that lack a clear statement of faith and policies are at greater risk of institutional crisis. As schools seek to clarify and solidify their doctrinal stance, they face the potential for controversy and fracturing amongst their administration, faculty, staff, and students.

For those who are invested in the future of Christian higher education, these are the top 10 areas where schools face religious liberty threats. Granted, all of these issues may not materialize—and certainly not all at the same school. But they are the areas with the most potential for risk.

As Christian colleges and seminaries look to the future, they must think through their strategy in each of these 10 categories to determine how they will overcome the religious liberty risks created by the recent Supreme Court marriage ruling.

Phillip Bethancourt

Phillip Bethancourt is Executive Vice President of the ERLC. He leads the ERLC team to develop innovative strategies to equip churches to address the key moral and ethical issues of the day. He completed an MDiv and PhD in Systematic Theology at Southern... Read More