By / Jul 2

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.

By / Apr 29

The question for this episode is, “What do you think is the biggest threat to religious liberty, and how should the church respond?”

Well, I mean I think the biggest threat right now when it comes to religious liberty has to do with the sexual issues. In the founding era of the republic most of the problems that our Baptist forbears were dealing with had to do with the government setting up and funding Anglican churches. It really wasn’t about Anglicanism, it was about money. You’ve got an establishment that likes the government money, likes the government power, and they want to run out the competition. That’s what it’s really about.

Now it’s not so much about money. It’s about sex. And so you are dealing with, I’m dealing with, every single day I’ve been dealing all day long with the sorts of issues where for instance you have a Christian who says I can’t by conscience participate in this same-sex wedding by being the photographer or by renting out the hall or something like that—now, being prosecuted, having fines levied against—those sorts of things are happening increasingly. That’s also what is happening with for instance the HHS mandate saying you really don’t have any choice but to fund or empower drugs that you believe to be violating your free exercise of religion.

And then things like Catholic adoption agencies in Massachusetts that aren’t able to be in business anymore because they’re saying we place children only in homes with both a mom and dad. They are not saying we think everybody else ought to be illegal. They are saying that we—and they can’t get a state license to do it. And so that’s where I think right now the locus of religious liberty issues in this country is.

And I think one of the problems too is that for a long time evangelical Christianity at the lay-populous level has had a narrow vision of religious liberty because we haven’t had a lot of threats to it in a real sense. So what has happened is really two things that I think make my job a lot more difficult now is that you have had some people who haven’t thought through that what our Baptist forbears were saying is right—that religious liberty is an image-of-God issue. It’s not a who-has-the-most-votes issue. And so that means we’re the people who ought to be saying the loudest no, no, no, no, we don’t want the mayor and the city council to say that a mosque can’t be in our town. Because a mayor and a city council that can say that, is a mayor and a city council—because it’s a mosque—that has too much power. And the government doesn’t decide that. We’ve got to be the people who are saying that.

And then secondly we’ve had a lot of people who have cried wolf over situations, they’ve cried persecution when there is no persecution, which is just as dangerous as saying peace, peace, when there is no peace—if you say war, war, where there is no war. So you have these kind of fake senses of we’re aggrieved; we’re persecuted because the lady at WalMart says, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” What happens when that goes on long enough—and it’s every single year the same sort of thing happens—then you wind up with people saying yeah, that’s what they always say. So they don’t pay attention when there really are serious restrictions of free exercise and religious liberty that now are coming upon us.