What does it mean for ministries and organizations that might require a particular statement of faith of their employees?
Shirley Mullen: There’s this very narrow notion that churches could hire people that embodied the religious conviction.
What is frightening is that many Christian organizations, including adoption agencies, humanitarian organizations, rescue missions, and Christian colleges, have activities that are not narrowly religious. Christian colleges are first of all educational institutions but are animated by a distinctively Christian mission in the same way that if you are a rescue mission, you are, first of all, a rescue mission, but carrying out that work animated by a particular ethic of a particular religious vision. The Equality Act would sever the organization from animating the religious vision.
It makes it hard for them to be religious in the way that they have traditionally understood that mandate. It removes from organizations the prerogative to hire for the objectives that they believe are central to their cause.
Part of the complexity is there would be certain sectors of the Christian community that would not see tensions in the Equality Act that the more conservative parts of the Christian community would see. There are certainly individuals in our society who would identify with the Christian and LGBTQ community and would say there’s no tension here that we need to be guarding.
What we don’t want to run into is where the claims of some parts of the Christian community, the Jewish community, or the Muslim community are discounted because they are not shared by all members of those religious traditions.
Religious communities carry out activities that contribute to the social good that everybody benefits from. We don’t want to remove from them the prerogative to hire in ways that reflect the religious vision that supports the work they do for the larger good of society.
Two aspects of the Equality Act that would be difficult for Christian colleges to manage is first, access to federal funding of student financial aid. Right now, seven out of every 10 students who come to a Christian college, including students of color and students from poor families, receive some form of federal funding, including Pell grants. The Equality Act not only interferes with the work of Christian colleges, but it also interferes with the prerogative of individual students to choose the kind of educational context that they believe would best serve them. The Equality Act would severely damage the capacity of these institutions to operate.
The other damaging implication of the Equality Act would be accreditation. Right now, Christian colleges participate in the mainstream of American higher education, which has always been marked by diversity and rich engagement across many denominations that are part of that network. The diversity of American higher education offers a wide range of options to students. Accreditation has always operated in terms of judging institutions by their ability to live up to their stated mission.
It has not been to measure educational institutions by whether they measure up to a standardized federal dictate. Accreditation has always operated to measure the integrity of an institution. If the Equality Act passes, it will jeopardize Christian colleges’ capacity to maintain its stated mission in presenting itself to accreditation institutions.
It makes Christian colleges pariah organizations within American higher education. It jeopardizes the ability of graduates of Christian colleges to be viewed with the same kind of credibility as graduates of other institutions in being considered for internships in social work and all arenas. It would jeopardize their capacity to be treated on the same playing field as other graduates in professional and graduate schools.
This changes the entire landscape of the work of Christian colleges to serve the world of higher education and for our graduates to engage in the mainstream work of promoting the social good. This is often framed as Christian colleges protecting themselves. Frankly, this will radically change the landscape of the ability of Christian institutions to serve the larger public good of our society.
Do you think this legislation will have a different impact on Christian institutions as legislation regarding race? In other words, are laws regarding race and sexuality applied differently?
Shirley Mullen: In the historic conservative Christian community, there’s a longstanding precedent for saying they’re not the same thing.
The Scriptures themselves align with the larger culture on matters of racial equity and equality of women. There are still many denominations that would not support women in ministry, but there’s a tradition that would say there is a difference between the way issues of race and issues of sexual ethics have been understood in the Christian tradition.
There is the issue of scope. It is true that certain institutions, for a wide range of reasons, not just around race, have chosen decades ago to never accept any kind of federal student aid because they wanted to have the freedom to never be dependent on federal student aid in the way that the majority of Christian colleges now find themselves dependent.
Certain institutions decided many years ago to take measures that would allow themselves to remain free from the regulatory activity of the federal government. But the scope of what we’re dealing with now is radically different.
When you have large swaths of not just conservative Protestants, but conservative Roman Catholics and conservative Jewish tradition disagreeing with action that the government wants to take, we need to pay attention.
Certain parts of the Christian and Jewish community would say that we should not look at the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity in a different way than we look at issues of race. We should treat scriptural teaching on those matters as specific historical contexts. What’s happening here is the threat of federal legislation intervening and cutting off a discussion that seems to be the purview of those religious communities.
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