When Religious Beliefs Conflict with Public Policy

Writing for the Boston Globe, Oliver Ortega has reported on the Lynn, Massachusetts, school district’s decision to sever ties with Gordon College, a Christian institution that has placed student teachers in the district’s classrooms for more than a decade.

The tension between the college’s and the school district’s positions on the employment rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals was brought into sharp focus when the college formally petitioned the federal government for an exemption from the recent federal order prohibiting employment decisions based on sexual orientation or gender identification.

The decision by the Lynn school district follows a decision by the city of Salem to end the college’s lease of space in the Town Hall.

So, on the surface, it would appear that this has been a fairly definitive rejection of the college’s stance on this issue by communities in one of the most progressive parts of the country.

But it’s actually been somewhat more ambiguous than that. For one thing, although the Lynn school board was unanimous in rejecting the college’s stance of LGBT employment rights, the board was sharply divided over how to act on that decision. Some of the board members were hesitant to sever so abruptly a largely successful relationship that had been developed over some years with the college. Others pointed to the budget deficits that the district is facing and worried about the consequences of having to replace what amounts to cost-free teaching aides and teachers.

Another interesting aspect to this situation is that while only 8-10 student teachers from Gordon College are placed with the Lynn school district, each year some 300 Gordon students actively volunteer with civic organizations in the community. Both the college and the district agree that it is in the best interests of both for that volunteerism to continue to be fostered.

Lastly, an attorney representing the college has asserted that the college could make the case that its free-speech rights are being violated by the decision of the school district, though he also stated that the college is very unlikely to pursue such a legal argument.

So, considering this news story in the context of other posts that have recently been made to this blog, there are at least two ironies that I can think of. First, this situation is sort of the obverse of what has occurred at Mills College, the single-gender institution that has courted controversy by deciding to admit transgender students who identify as female. Second, given the argument proposed by the attorney for Gordon College, one must wonder whether we are approaching some sort of legal decision that will establish that our institutions have the same free-speech rights as individuals. And, if that were to happen–and given the controversies that have surrounded the exercise of free-speech rights by Ward Churchill, David Guth, Rachel Slocum, and now Steven Salaita–we would then enter into some Orwellian realm in which colleges and universities are “people” and have the full rights that individuals enjoy, but the people whom they employ abdicate some of their basic human rights by accepting employment.



One thought on “When Religious Beliefs Conflict with Public Policy

  1. The US Supreme Court has already permitted states to censure employee speech by both the Waters v. Churchill and the Garcetti v. Ceballos decisions which limit the gains of the Pickering case.

    The Orwellian Big Brother is firmly established in public institutions, monitoring employee speech — and there does not appear to be much of a corner available to avoid the all-controlling gaze….

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