LGBTQ students grapple with tensions at Christian colleges

Collegeville, Minnesota (AP) – While monks sang prayers in the church at Saint John’s University, members of the student LGBTQ organization QPLUS met in their lounge at the Minnesota institution’s Sister Benedictine College, a few miles away.

For Sean Fisher, a senior who identifies as non-binary and helps run QPLUS, official recognition and funding from Saint John’s and the College of Saint Benedict is welcome evidence that schools “recognize that it’s queer student gives”.

But tensions linger here and at many of the hundreds of Catholic and Protestant universities across the United States. The Christian teachings they ascribe differ from societal values ​​about gender identity and sexual orientation because they claim that God created human beings with unchanging male and female identities and that sex should only take place in the marriage of a man and a woman.

“The ambivalence about genuine caring is clouded by Jesus-like attitudes. Like ‘Love your next’ has an asterisk,” Fisher said.

Most of the 200 Catholic institutions that serve nearly 900,000 students have struggled to be welcoming, said Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

According to John Hawthorne, a sociology professor and retired Christian college administrator, some among Protestant institutions are pushing the boundaries, and most hoping to avoid controversy.

“Denominational will not back down, so colleges have to lead,” Hawthorne said, adding that in the future there may not be enough students interested in conservative colleges. “Today’s college freshman was born in 2004, the year Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage.”

Most Christian schools list “sexual orientation” in their nondiscrimination statements, and half also include “gender identity” — far more than in 2013, said Jonathan Coley, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University who maintains a database of LGBTQ student policies maintains christian colleges .

But putting non-discrimination into practice creates tension and backlash. Discrimination complaints have been filed at some conservative schools, while some parents and clergy argue that more affirmative institutions are betraying their mission.

“We must learn to live with this tension,” said Rev. Donal Godfrey, a chaplain at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution in a city with a history of LGBTQ activism and a conservative Catholic archbishop who opposes same-sex marriage is .

“Catholic colleges and universities … are the most LGBTQ-friendly places in the church in the United States,” said Francis DeBernando. New Ways Ministry, the LGBTQ Catholic advocacy group he directs, maintains a list of Catholic colleges it considers LGBTQ-friendly.

The Cardinal Newman Society, which advocates fidelity to Church teachings in matters of Catholic education, maintains its own list of recommended schools.

“For these colleges, being ‘Catholic’ is not a watered down brand or historical tradition,” Newman president Patrick Reilly said via email.

Other campus leaders see tensions in Catholic teachings, which tend to be conservative on human sexuality but progressive on social justice.

“It’s kind of a tightrope act,” said John Scarano, campus director at John Carroll University, a Jesuit school near Cleveland.

To parents and prospective students undecided between John Carroll and Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, Scarano says, “This is where your Catholicism is challenged.”

At Franciscan, “we do not stray from the truth of the human person as discovered in Scripture, in the tradition of the church, and in the teaching authority of the church,” said Rev. Jonathan St. Andre, a senior university leader, adding that Franciscans not tolerating harassment from those who disagree.

Student safety is a priority, said Mary Geller, deputy provost of Saint John’s and Saint Benedict. Minnesota’s same-sex institutions are now accepting students based on the gender they identify with and considering transfers for those who are transitioning.

That angers some parents, like a father complaining “that we have students with male body parts in a women’s dorm,” Geller recalls. “I just said, ‘Sir, I don’t check body parts.'”

Last year, LGBTQ students or alumni in state-funded Christian schools filed a class-action lawsuit against the US Department of Education, alleging that its religious exemption allows schools to unconstitutionally discriminate against LGBTQ students.

In May, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights launched a separate investigation into alleged violations of the rights of LGBTQ students at six Christian universities — including Liberty University.

The independent evangelical university has greatly expanded its prohibition rules, banning LGBTQ clubs, same-sex displays of affection and the use of pronouns, toilets and changing rooms that do not match a person’s birth sex. Liberty’s student handbook prohibits statements and behavior related to what it calls “LGBT states of mind.”

“Liberty is very anti-gay,” said Sydney Windsor, a senior who came to Liberty to quell her attraction to women and now identifies as pansexual. “It’s years of irreversible trauma.”

In some evangelical schools, the fight for rights has shifted to LGBTQ diversity in hiring teachers and staff.

This year, Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, which is affiliated with American Baptist Churches USA, changed its policies to allow faculty hiring in same-sex marriages — one of only a handful of evangelical schools to do so.

“If we could get faculty to come out and openly represent queer people on campus, that would be really awesome,” said Faith Jeanette Millender, a student there who identifies as bisexual or queer.

At Seattle Pacific University, a Free Methodist affiliate school, a dispute erupts between students, faculty and the school’s board of trustees over hiring LGBTQ faculty.

The faculty passed a vote of no confidence to the board over maintaining the policy that barred people in same-sex relationships from full-time positions. Faculty and students have also sued the board for breach of its fiduciary duty.

“I know how much Christianity has harmed communities, be they black, women or LGBTQ people,” said Chloe Guillot, 22, an SPU graduate student and one of 16 plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “I have a responsibility to enter these spaces and be ready to fight back. As Christians, we must hold ourselves accountable.”

The administration responded to one of the lawsuits in a court filing, saying it expects students and faculty to “affirm the university’s creed and live up to its life expectancies, which together shape the institution’s vision and mission.”

For students, concrete actions will show if LGBTQ people can really be welcomed on Christian campuses.

Ryan Imm, a junior at Saint John’s and QPLUS leader who identifies as gay, recalled an anti-LGBTQ slur used on his apartment floor. But he also pointed to hopeful signs — like the popular Saint Benedict drag show.

“It’s almost like people forget that there is dissonance,” Imm said.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/nation-world/2022/12/05/christian-colleges-see-growing/ LGBTQ students grapple with tensions at Christian colleges

Justin Scacco

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