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Same-Sex Wedding Likely to End Professor's Job at Christian School

Calvin University

A professor at Calvin University, a conservative Christian school in Grand Rapids, Mich., is likely to lose his job because he officiated a same-sex couple’s wedding.

Joseph Kuilema, a social work professor, officiated the wedding of Nicole Sweda and Annica Steen last October, Religion News Service reports. Kuilema had previously been denied tenure because of his advocacy for LGBTQ+ causes, and his contract at the university is subject to renewal every two years. His latest appointment expires this year, and because of the wedding, Calvin’s Professional Status Committee has recommended that he not be reappointed. He plans to appeal the decision, but he realizes his time at the university will probably be at an end.

“I was deeply disappointed by the committee’s decision,” he told Religion News Service. “I love Calvin University. I love working here. I love our mission. And I think it’s important to say that I did what I did because of that mission.”

Calvin is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, which opposes same-sex marriage. Kuilema is a member of the church, but his congregation differs with the denomination’s position and affirms such marriages. He said he consulted with leaders at his congregation before officiating the wedding, and they supported his decision to do so. He believes the denomination’s stance derives from a misinterpretation of the Bible.

“I began to have some real questions, and for me as a Christian, the way through those questions has always been deeper engagement and deeper study,” he told Inside Higher Ed. “Over time, I’ve come to understand what I think the Bible is really prohibiting is abusive, coercive forms of sex, including ritual cultic sex, basically sex trafficking or religious sex in temples, and not [prohibiting] a loving, committed, covenantal relationship between two consenting adults.”

Sweda and Steen’s ceremony was a civil one, not a religious one, so Kuilema believed that conducting it fell under the definition of “private citizenship activity” that he was free to engage in, according to university documents obtained by Calvin’s student newspaper, Chimes. However, his decision to officiate the wedding constituted a “serious lapse in judgement,” Benita Wolters-Fredlund, dean of Calvin’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, wrote in a memo last month.

“Thus, despite Prof. Kuilema’s stellar record in the areas of Christian Reformed commitment, teaching, scholarship and service, and in contradiction with the unanimous recommendation of the tenured faculty in the Sociology and Social Work Department, I am unable to recommend that Prof. Kuilema be reappointed,” Wolters-Fredlund continued.

Kuilema was notified of the committee’s decision April 18. The next day, dozens of his fellow faculty members sent a letter to Calvin’s board of trustees urging that he be reappointed. “None of us wants to be a part of a Calvin University that excludes the voice and spirit of someone like Dr. Kuilema,” they wrote. “None of us wants to be part of a university that doesn’t have room to welcome all students, including LGBTQ followers of Jesus who are answering the call of discipleship in ways that are affirmed by their CRC councils and congregations.”

The trustees then sent an email to Calvin students, faculty, and staff outlining the university’s position on LGBTQ+ issues without directly referencing the letter. Those associated with the university have “a responsibility to abide with the positions of the church,” the trustees said in the email, which was viewed by Inside Higher Ed. While same-sex attraction is not a choice, “sexual acts are a choice, and … those that fall outside of a covenantal union between one man and one woman do not reflect God’s intentions or desires for God’s people,” the email continued.

Calvin spokesperson Matthew Kucinski, contacted by Inside Higher Ed, would not comment on Kuilema’s specific situation but said faculty members have to adhere to the university’s policies, even though they are free to express disagreement with them. “The CRC and the university hold that human sexuality is a gift from God and that sexual relations are reserved exclusively for expression in the context of marriage between a man and a woman,” he told the site. The Advocate has requested further comment from Kucinski and will update this story with any response.

Sweda was a research associate at Calvin’s Center for Social Research at the time of her wedding. Calvin refuses to employ anyone in a same-sex marriage, “but rather than fire her, the university spun off the research center as an independent entity,” Inside Higher Ed reports. She then resigned anyway.

“It really does come down to the fact that I’m openly queer why this has all happened, and I think that’s disgusting,” she told the site. Speaking to Religion News Service, she added that while she is upset at what’s happened to Kuilema, “I don’t think it has eclipsed the happiness of our wedding. If it hadn’t been for our marriage, Calvin would have found another way to get rid of him.”

Kuilema told the news service he doesn’t regret officiating the marriage and would make the same decision again. “My personal faith is stronger than ever,” he said. “At the same time, I am increasingly disillusioned with organized religion.”

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