Many colleges and universities are compliant with the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the nation, but religiously affiliated colleges that are against gay unions are under particular pressure to conform, experts say.
The Supreme Court ruled in June that marriage is a constitutionally protected right that same-sex couples can exercise in all 50 states. In the landmark 5-4 decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the high court ruled that the U.S. Constitution guarantees marriage and its “constellation of benefits” to same-sex couples.
In his nine-page dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia called the majority opinion “a judicial Putsch [i.e., a violent attempt to overthrow a government] that poses a threat to American democracy.”
Meanwhile, gay marriage supporters lauded the Supreme Court ruling as an important step toward progress in the fight for marriage equality.
“This decision stimulates an ongoing movement, and it will continue the discussion and work within the academy to make LGBTQ rights more fully realized for the whole country,” says Raymond Crossman, president of Adler University in Chicago and co-chair of LGBTQ Presidents in Higher Education, a network of out college and university presidents.
With the ruling in place, questions are being raised about how it will affect colleges and universities — especially religiously affiliated ones that oppose same-sex marriage — and how they will adjust their policies. Many colleges and universities already recognize benefits for same-sex partners, such as those in states that had legalized same-sex marriage prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Nevertheless, Christian colleges face an uncertain future, and many are fearful of losing their tax-exempt status, accreditation, and federal and state benefits if they abide by their religious principles on what constitutes marriage.
While religious institutions won’t be forced to alter their beliefs and practices, they could face legal challenges if they refuse to provide the same benefits to employees in gay unions as they do for married heterosexual employees, says Frank Ravitch, a professor at Michigan State University College of Law.
“Religious institutions won’t be required to perform [marriage] ceremonies they don’t believe in. It won’t happen, because the IRS and the government would have to make a conscious decision to say we’re not going to allow you to follow your religious mission,” Ravitch says. “The bigger issues are benefits and hiring.”
While some scholars don’t believe the June ruling will result in widespread legal battles, how the issue eventually plays out for colleges and universities may vary from state to state, says Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“You’ve got to look at state and local anti-discrimination laws because that’s where protection with respect to sexual orientation would come from,” Tuttle says. “Half of the states have some form of protection for sexual orientation, half of the states don’t. In those states that have strong prohibitions against discrimination based on sexual orientation, I see the potential for legal battles.”
In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, some Christian colleges across the nation are updating their policies.
In mid-July, Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College expanded their anti-discrimination policies to allow married, gay faculty to work at their institutions. The schools were among Christian colleges that previously only recognized heterosexual marriages and required that unmarried faculty members be chaste. Both schools are the first members of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities to adopt such a change, and both institutions are aligned with the Mennonite Church.
For Eastern Mennonite, the rule change follows a June vote by its board to update the school’s policy on same-sex marriage. This decision drew mixed reactions from the limited number of faculty and staff at the university’s Harrisonburg, Va., campus says Andrea Wenger, director of marketing and communications for the university.
“For some people, it’s a time of great celebration; they’re very happy and see it as progress,” Wenger says. “For others, it’s a time of disappointment because they don’t see it as within the exercise of their faith. We’ve tried to create an environment where people can feel safe expressing themselves and stay in community together despite their differences.”
Meanwhile, other higher education institutions are addressing the ruling in other ways. In a written statement, Houghton College in New York said it is exploring the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision: “We are actively working with other Christian organizations nationwide, including the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, to find pathways forward that fully honor the fundamental rights the Constitution has granted to all members of our society — even when those rights are in tension.”
Baylor University in Waco, Texas, the largest Baptist university in the U.S., has dropped specific references to homosexual acts from its sexual conduct policy, although its website still maintains “purity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman as the biblical norm.” The university board of regents approved the removal of language regarding homosexual acts from the policy in May.
With the ruling still front of mind for U.S. colleges and universities, many questions have yet to be answered, especially in regard to its effect on private Christian colleges. However, Ravitch says, the solution itself should be apparent.
“The Supreme Court didn’t say religious institutions have to change their doctrines. At the same time, religious institutions aren’t going to be able to fire every LGBTQ employee without having a threat to their tax-exempt status,” he says. “The reality is we’re going to settle into something of a middle ground.”●
Tannette Johnson-Elie is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.