A Christian University Toughens Its Anti-LGBT Stances
Anti-LGBT language in the doctrinal statement and employee handbook for Biola University, a private Christian school in Southern California, has some employees concerned for their jobs, even though administrators say they needn't be.
Longtime employees at the La Mirada, Calif., school say the statement and handbook have language that wasn’t there when they first were hired. The added specifics on “Definition of Marriage/Biblical Context for Sexual Relationship” and the “Sanctity of Life” have made some employees uncomfortable, to say the the least.
On October 9, all Biola employees were asked to reaffirm their commitment to “Biola's Doctrinal Statement, two Theological Distinctives [belief statements] and the Standard of Conduct” (the latter outlined in the handbook), per an email The Advocate obtained from Biola’s human resources department. The request was sent to both full-time and part-time employees, who were asked to sign the statements electronically by December 23, but this week Biola president Barry Corey sent employees an email extending the deadline to March 31 and attempting to address their concerns about it. Employees sign the document upon hiring; the theological distinctive on marriage was added in 2012 for faculty members, who were asked to reaffirm annually thereafter, and was added in 2014 for staff, who are being asked to reaffirm this year, according to a university spokesperson.
The doctrinal statement, available on Biola University’s website, outlines the theologically conservative beliefs the university expects employees to espouse. Doctrinal statements are common at religious educational institutions; for some institutions the doctrinal statement is broad, and for others it’s quite specific.
Biola, founded in 1908 as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, touts itself as adhering to “the fundamentals of the Christian faith,” including conservative stances on same-sex marriage, abortion, and other issues. The theological distinctive on marriage, which is the section of the doctrinal statement at issue, now includes the following language:
“Biblical marriage consists only of a faithful, heterosexual union between one genetic male and one genetic female, and biblical marriage is the only legitimate and acceptable context for a sexual relationship.”
The use of the term “genetic” indicates that Biola affirms marriage as solely a union between one cisgender male and one cisgender female, all but erasing "legitimate and acceptable" relationships for transgender people.
But even before the addition of this section, the spokesperson said, the doctrinal statement “included Biola's position on traditional marriage and sexual ethics as per historic Christian belief.”
Of special concern to some workers is language in the employee handbook. In September 2014, Biola added a section on “Institutional Statements on Human Sexuality and Transsexualism and Transgenderism” to the handbook. It states that “any act of sexual intimacy between two persons of the same sex” is immoral, and opposes “the adoption of a psychological identity discordant with one's birth sex” or “attempts to change one's given biological birth sex via medical intervention.”
“After talking to my colleagues, I saw everybody received this email,” the employee continues. “I have very mixed feelings about it. ... It’s just that my employer can decide that we believe this, and if I don’t believe this I can lose my job at any point in time.”
The employee plans to affirm the document, though they may take advantage of an option to express their concern by affirming "with reservations."
“I haven’t decided if I’m going to affirm with reservations, or just affirm it,” the staffer says. “Biola [human resources] are not the people I want to have this discussion with. It feels like they’re judging me based on a yes or no answer. My personal beliefs are more nuanced. ... I kind of wanted to say no, as the document isn’t too clear. It’s not a conversation I want to have with my employer and I cannot risk my family’s financial well-being at this point in time.”
This employee is one of half a dozen The Advocate spoke to who are worried about their employment if they do not affirm the university's statement. Among those, only two staffers agreed to go on the record, both on the condition of anonymity.
While the employees expressed fear of being fired for a negative answer, Biola University tells The Advocate such a response wouldn't necessarily prompt a staffer's termination. But the Biola website says employees who fail to agree with the doctrinal statements and handbook will be dismissed.
Originally, The Advocate sent five questions to Biola’s communications and marketing department. In the initial response, Lee Wilhite, vice president of university communications and marketing, responded to two of the questions with the following:
“For the first time, employees are being asked to reaffirm their alignment with the doctrinal statement electronically. In years past, employees have reaffirmed their statement on paper. If an employee selects 'Yes' or 'Yes, with reservations,' Biola will take this to mean the employee agrees or generally agrees with Biola’s position, though they may be processing some theological understandings. If an employee selects 'No,' it is not means for automatic job dismissal. The university will seek to understand the employee’s position and understanding of the theological distinctives by further discussion between the employee and their supervisor or human resources.”
In a follow-up email, Wilhite responded to all five questions, with a modified version of the statement listed above. That secondary response did not include the phrase about a "no" response not being "means for automatic job dismissal." Instead, the following was added to the end of the statement:
“If an employee selects 'No,' the university will seek to understand the employee’s position and understanding of the theological distinctive by further discussion between the employee and their supervisor or human resources to determine if they’re a good theological fit for the university long-term.”
When The Advocate asked about the revisions made, a representative of the university said both answers are true, and that employees would not necessarily be fired if they had differing views on same-sex marriage.
But that statement is contrary to what is printed in Biola University’s handbook. Section 1.2 of the Biola University Employee Handbook, titled "Doctrinal Statement and Applications" as found on the website, states employees are required to be in full agreement.
“Every employee of the University must agree and support the above Articles of Faith and shall be required to subscribe annually to the Articles of Faith,” the handbook states. “Any employee ceasing to believe the above Articles of Faith shall by that fact cease to be an employee of the University. No teaching or support of a position inconsistent with these Articles of Faith will be tolerated on the part of any employee of the University.”
Furthermore, the section singles out two theological distinctives, “Sanctity of Life” and “Definition of Marriage/Biblical Context for a Sexual Relationship” as distinctives that “require the full agreement and support of all employees.”
In his email, sent two days ago, Biola's president attempted to allay employees' concerns. “If you are leaning toward saying you don’t agree with Biola’s theological distinctives on the sacredness of life or the biblical definition of marriage (or any of the Articles of Faith like the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, salvation by grace through faith, etc.), I encourage you to be honest in your answers,” Corey wrote in the email, a copy of which was obtained by The Advocate. “Disagreeing with either of these two theological distinctives does not necessarily mean that you will have a short-term employment future at Biola. What is significant to us is what you mean by disagree. It may be that an administrator in your area or another thoughtful representative at Biola will process your concerns with you to understand your differences and to discern with you on your fit into this covenantal community over the long term. And please know that we endeavor not to be a judgmental community. We desire to be as strong on grace as we are on truth.”
On marriage, he wrote, “The theological distinctive on the sacredness of marriage is not about whether gay marriage should be legal or not. It is legal, and it is the law of the land. What our statement is saying is that we believe that God revealed in Scripture his created order and established the covenant of marriage to thrive when it is between a man and a woman in a lifelong partnership, faithful and Christ-honoring. ... Checking this box on our community’s understanding of a biblical marriage does not mean you can’t go to a gay wedding or love those who may be in a gay marriage. What it does mean is that you are part of a Christian community that understands God’s design for marriage as a profound covenant between a man and a woman.”
The request to affirm the theological distinctives comes at at time when the university has requested an exemption from Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law banning sex discrimination at schools that receive federal funds. The Department of Education has, in recent years, increasingly held that sex discrimination includes discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
In 2013, Biola “began crafting language barring transgender students at the same time a fellow Christian college, California Baptist University, was facing a lawsuit after expelling a transgender student,” reports The Column, a site covering LGBT issues.
The following year, after the Department of Education first affirmed that Title IX protections extend to trans students, Biola submitted a letter to Department requesting an exemption, essentially seeking a right to discriminate based on gender identity. At press time, the federal agency had yet to respond to Biola's request, as it is awaiting additional information from the university.
Almost all U.S. colleges and universities, even private religious ones, receive some type of federal funding, often in the form of student financial aid or research grants. Any school that receives any such funding is required to abide by federal laws regarding nondiscrimination and equal access.
In a statement emailed to The Advocate, university representatives contend that Biola is in compliance with those federal laws, but wary of a possible conflict given recent trans-inclusive decisions:
“Biola operates in compliance with Title IX regarding discrimination on the basis of sex in its programs and activities. Title IX provides for a religious exemption where the application of Title IX may be in conflict with the religious tenets of a college or university. In the context of Biola's sincerely held religious beliefs regarding issues of gender identity and expression, there is the potential for a conflict between positions taken by the Department of Education in its interpretation of the requirements under Title IX and Biola's religious position. Accordingly, the University felt it was prudent to request an exemption on this basis should such a conflict occur.
"Biola regards sex at birth as the identification of the given biological sex of students and admits students accordingly. Biola will accommodate students based on their biological sex. ... Biola is committed to the biblical and theological understanding of gender identity as God's original and ongoing intent and action was the creation of humanity manifest as two distinct sexes, male and female. Except in very unusual cases, our sex as male or female is a biological given of the individual human person from conception made manifest at birth, and is not changeable but rather a stable, enduring characteristic of the person determined by God's creational intent. However, tension and conflict between one's biological sex and one's experience of gender should be treated with pastoral concern and care. Biola is committed to provide a safe place for all students as it relates to their sexual identity.”
Biola is one of three dozen Christian schools that have recently applied for such waivers, denounced as a “right to discriminate” by opponents. At least 27 schools have received them, according to The Column. The site further reports that Biola received $6.8 million in federal funds in 2014.