Equal Rights vs. Religious Principles

Operating in a pluralistic society, America’s institutions of liberal learning have always faced a fundamental choice: to create cloistered sanctuaries from social difference, or to embrace difference as central to our teaching missions.

That choice may seem especially fraught for religiously based colleges, balanced between the demands of civil law and their desire to adhere to the principles of their religious faith. The choice played out most recently this week in the decision by the federal Department of Education to grant Simpson University, in California, and Spring Arbor University, in Michigan, a religious exemption from Title IX.

Those exemptions came on the heels of an Education Department decision in May that allowed Oregon’s George Fox University, staking its claim on its Quaker affiliation, to legally deny the request of a female-to-male transgender student seeking assignment to an all-male dormitory.

Whether or not the religious exemptions stand, they put in clear relief our country’s abiding tension between principles of equal treatment under the law (a student’s right to the protections of Title IX) and principles of religious self-determination (or, as George Fox University said in a statement, its right “to draw on its religious convictions to handle situations related to students experiencing gender-identity issues”).

Most of the time, religious institutions “render unto Caesar” the deference to the law expected of them. Because we constitutionally and statutorily recognize a right to practice religion as well as to believe its tenets, the government must accommodate religious practices where possible and sometimes may relieve religious institutions of an especially burdensome law, if the religious adherent asks Caesar to render unto it the favor of an exemption.

The tension between equal rights under the law and religious self-determination will not be resolved as long as we as a country operate as a cultural pluralism—and that’s a good thing. The fact that these disputes arise at all is a sign of social health, not dysfunction.

Returning to the George Fox case as an example, what’s at issue is not merely the particular dilemma posed by a student redefining his gender identity, but also the larger challenges posed by pluralism for religiously based institutions.

George Fox seemed to recognize that when it said its religious commitments as a Christ-centered institution “don’t always lead to easy answers in an increasingly complex world.” Dealing gracefully and sensitively with individual student (or faculty or staff) cases of nonconformity is a great starting point. But asking Caesar to render permission to discriminate is not a solution, either to the student’s problem or, I would argue, to a religious institution’s confrontation with postmodernity.

The real question for religious schools is not “Why should you receive an exemption from the law?” Rather it must be “What does it mean to call yourself an educational institution?”

“Education,” in the sense I am using it, means bringing students into a multiplicity of competing ideas and worldviews, perspectives and traditions, and preparing them to navigate the path from a monocultural world to one of social complexity and ambiguity. It assumes that college should be an arena for students’ self-formation, a place for them to shape themselves as more fully realized individuals, good citizens, productive and compassionate contributors to society.

Do we, as educators, have an obligation to help our students form themselves through deep engagement with difference? Or ought self-formation work within a single, privileged frame—religious or secular—in which pluralism of worldview is an unfortunate byproduct of social decline or “the modern world”? But in what sense can such a place call itself an educational institution?

Elmhurst College, where I work, draws on its roots in the United Church of Christ to articulate a set of core values that inform our collective life as a campus. The values align with those of our church and would very likely be acknowledged at any institution of liberal learning: intellectual excellence, community, social responsibility, stewardship, and respect for faith, meaning, and values. Together, those values guide us in evaluating everything, including student conduct, community partnerships, allocation of financial resources, and an admission policy that reaches out to LGBT applicants.

In this we are not unlike a religious college. We have our “creed” and seek to live by it. We are not value-neutral. What we are, however, is deeply committed to cultural pluralism. We welcome difference as a tool of self-formation and growth. In addition to mainline Protestants, our student body includes Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Evangelical Christians, and spiritual seekers, as well as the “new nones,” who express no religious affiliation.

Postmodernism has taught us that claims to value-neutrality in education are naïve. Religiously affiliated institutions are right to claim values as part of their educational task. They are equally to be commended for seeing our work as educators to be “soul work”—helping undergraduates come to grips with who they are and how they may affect the world and themselves for good.

Liberal-arts colleges like Elmhurst, George Fox, and others have a common cause in our commitment to helping students become better people as well as more knowledgeable, more productive individuals. Our religious roots mean that, while we share the benefit of a wealth of cultural resources in our educational work, we share a common burden too: maintaining fidelity to our religious traditions while being educated ourselves by the great and growing variety of social forms and ways of living in our world.

To the extent we succeed in striking a balance between our religious heritage and learning what the world has to teach us, we no longer need to look—or at least to look so often or so quickly—to the government for religious exemptions.

Our religious values and the liberal value of equal treatment under the law should not be enemies, but in fact should be aligned and complementary expressions of a common impulse toward creating a humane and fertile environment for learning. We need not ask Caesar to render unto us what is already within our grasp.

S. Alan Ray is president and professor of religion and society at Elmhurst College, in Illinois.

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