Administration

What the Landmark Ruling on Gay Marriage Means for Higher Education

Alex Wong, Getty Images

Supporters of same-sex marriage rejoice outside the U.S. Supreme Court building after the court ruled that same-sex couples have a right to marry. While students and faculty members will have more choices on where to enroll or seek a job, as a result of the ruling, religious colleges expressed fears about their tax-exempt status and accreditation.
June 26, 2015

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. What will the effect be on higher education?

For most colleges, not much.

But for others — in particular, Christian colleges — the ruling beckons toward an uncertain future. Some people at Christian colleges worry that they might lose federal benefits if they don’t change their own policies on same-sex relationships and marriages.

Since colleges have been dealing with a "patchwork of laws across states," the ruling will probably make it easier for institutions to support gay students and professors, said Suzanne B. Goldberg, director of the Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic at the Columbia University Law School, which filed a brief with the Supreme Court in support of same-sex marriage.

Colleges in states that have already legalized same-sex marriage have recognized benefits for those employees already. While the ruling will lead to a potential increase in benefits for same-sex couples who do get married, same-sex couples receiving co-habituation benefits who choose not to wed could see those benefits disappear, said Brian Powell, a professor of sociology at Indiana University at Bloomington.

Students who hailed from states that had not legalized same-sex marriage and, for that reason, who had chosen to attend a more-progressive institution out of state could also be more inclined to attend a public institution in their home state now that marriage equality is legal there, Mr. Powell added.

The ruling could also expand choices for professors considering job opportunities, said Steve Sanders, an associate professor of law at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law. Gay and lesbian professors have had to take into consideration whether a potential job was in a state that had legalized gay marriage. Now they will no longer have to worry about that when looking for a position.

"To the extent that colleges and universities are part of a truly nationwide marketplace of higher education, this decision tears down barriers and corrects market problems," Mr. Sanders said. He served as co-counsel on a brief to the Supreme Court arguing that state laws banning same-sex marriage were not justified under the Constitution.

Advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and other students said the ruling would help them move on to other issues, such as access to higher education and mental-health concerns for young LGBTQ students of color and transgender students of color, said Shane L. Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, an advocacy group.

"I’m hopeful that we can now say we won one game; now the next game is looking at trans rights, how we treat queer people of color, especially first-generation LGBTQ students of color," Mr. Windmeyer said.

Raymond E. Crossman, president of the Adler University, said he had learned of the ruling while giving the opening remarks at a conference for LGBTQ academics looking to advance to higher-education leadership.

"I feel very proud to be part of the higher-ed community that helped start this whole movement. We were among the first to say domestic-partner benefits are important," Mr. Crossman said. "This will certainly help continue that movement."

Challenges for Religious Colleges

But not everyone in academe welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision. Christian colleges across the nation — many of which forbid same-sex relationships among students and faculty members — said they faced an uncertain future, with the decision potentially affecting their tax-exempt status, accreditation, student-housing policies, and ability to admit and hire people based on religious convictions.

This month more than 70 educational institutions, including evangelical colleges, sent a letter to the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and the House speaker, John Boehner of Ohio, expressing concern about losing their tax-exempt status should the Supreme Court rule that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. Their concern centered on an exchange, during oral arguments in April, between Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., who represented the Obama administration.

In the exchange, Justice Alito asked whether a college would not be entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed same-sex marriage, citing a 1983 Supreme Court decision allowing the Internal Revenue Service to rescind Bob Jones University’s tax-exempt status because it opposed interracial marriage and dating. Mr. Verrilli responded that he wasn’t sure and that "it’s certainly going to be an issue."

That answer, and the uncertainty over the effect of the ruling, has put some Christian colleges on edge.

"Many religious institutions simply could not afford to operate" without tax exemptions, said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Kentucky, and a signer of the letter to the congressional leaders. "So it’s not just a question of tax exemptions, it’s a question of existence."

For his part, Jerry D. Mackey, general counsel of Biola University, a Christian institution in California, said that the ruling could affect colleges' tax-exempt status, though in his opinion it was "too premature" to make any predictions.

Benjamin Merkle, president of New Saint Andrews College, in Idaho, said that he was concerned that the ruling could affect accreditation agencies, including the one that oversees his college, the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, if colleges did not align with federal standards. He and H. James Towey, president of Ave Maria University, in Florida, also said they thought the Supreme Court had overstepped its bounds in the ruling, which would restrict the autonomy of religious institutions.

But Jennifer E. Walsh, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Azusa Pacific University, in California, was more optimistic. She said the ruling would not infringe on religious colleges’ liberties and that, "undoubtedly, Christian colleges will find themselves engaging in more discourse" about gay rights.