The Coming Split at Conservative Colleges

Is your school for bigots?…Or for apostates? That’s the choice that conservative school leaders have faced throughout the twentieth century. And it is coming round again. As the US Supreme Court hears arguments about same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, conservative religious schools and colleges should gear up for another divisive debate over equality and theology. If SCOTUS rules in favor of same-sex marriage, will evangelical and fundamentalist schools face a return to the hot tempers of 1971?

More bad news for conservatives...

More bad news for conservatives…

The case itself is a combination of cases from four states. In short, SCOTUS is trying to decide two issues: whether or not the Constitution requires states to allow same-sex marriage; and whether or not same-sex marriages in one state must be recognized by all states.

Conservative Christians have made their feelings clear. Among the hundreds of friend-of-the-court letters are one from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and one from Governor Mike Huckabee’s advocacy group.

At the Christian Post this morning, we see nervous worries about the possible fall-out for conservative Christian schools. Justice Samuel Alito made an explicit reference to the precedent on every conservative’s mind: the Bob Jones University case. Back in 1970, the leaders of BJU refused to allow racial integration on their South Carolina campus. As a result, the Internal Revenue Service took away BJU’s tax-exempt status. By 1983, BJU had taken its case all the way to the Supreme Court. It lost.

Alito asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli if the precedent would apply:

JUSTICE ALITO:  Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax­exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating.  So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same­ sex marriage?

GENERAL VERRILLI:  You know, I ­­ I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. ­ I don’t deny that.  I don’t deny that, Justice Alito.  It is ­­ it is going to be an issue.

Conservatives worry that this might mean the end of religious schools and colleges. Should religious schools refuse to provide housing for same-sex married couples, the federal government could revoke their tax-exempt status. For most schools, that would mean a sudden and impossibly steep tax bill. When schools are already teetering on the brink of financial insolvency, it could certainly mean the end.

But that’s not all. If history is any guide, Christian school leaders should also prepare for another kind of crisis. Back in the 1970s, fundamentalist schools endured a vicious and destructive split over Bob Jones University’s position on racial segregation.

As I’ve been finding in the archives this past year, even schools that agreed with BJU’s fundamentalist theology sometimes disagreed with BJU’s position against interracial marriage. At the Moody Bible Institute, for example, leaders decided to cancel an invitation to pro-BJU fundamentalist leader John R. Rice. The decision subjected MBI’s leaders to withering criticism from fundamentalists nationwide.

Reporters and observers have noted that SCOTUS’s decision in this case might raise questions for leaders of conservative religious schools. Those leaders should also consider another likely outcome. If SCOTUS’s decision puts pressure on school leaders to recognize same-sex marriages, it might lead to another in a long line of bitter fights among schools.

Will conservative evangelicals and Catholics submit to the law of the land? Or will they resist, citing a higher authority? Will conservative schools lose their conservative credibility if they give in to the new cultural ethos?

It’s not going to be an easy choice. If I were the president of a conservative Christian school or college, I’d get myself ready for a lose-lose decision. Do I want my school to be labeled a bunch of fanatical bigots? Or would I prefer to join the ranks of schools that don’t take their religions very seriously?

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