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Faith

What happens when society rejects a faith-based moral standard?

The accreditation of an evangelical Christian college near Boston is under review, and a city contract was terminated last week, after the president of Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, signed a letter asking for religious liberty protection under proposed federal anti-discrimination rules involving homosexuals.

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which bills itself as "the nation's oldest regional accrediting association," told the Boston Business Journal it would "talk about the issues" raised by Gordon College President D. Michael Lindsay's signing of the open letter to President Barack Obama asking for an exemption to proposed federal contracting rules barring discrimination in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation. The panel will consider the matter at a regularly scheduled meeting for September 17-18, the report said.

In June, the White House indicated the president would sign an executive order on the matter. Legislation to block employment discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgendered people passed the Senate in 2013, but is stalled in the House of Representatives.

In an open letter posted after news about the accreditation review erupted, Lindsay did not indicate that any direct challenge was posted to the school by the proposed executive order: "My sole intention in signing this letter was to affirm the College’s support of the underlying issue of religious liberty, including the right of faith-based institutions to set and adhere to standards which derive from our shared framework of faith, and which we all have chosen to embrace as members of the Gordon community," Lindsay wrote.

NEASC Commission on Institutions of Higher Education President Barbara Brittingham, in reference to the Gordon action, told the Business Journal: "It has achieved a lot of visibility and the issues are complicated," she said.

The group "will talk about the issues and decide if the issues, that are raised and what is publicly available, is at odds in any way with standards and policies," she said.

Gordon first received regional accreditation in 1961. The recognition is often viewed as important for students wishing to pursue graduate studies, transfer credits to other institutions, or for schools wishing to participate in federal aid programs.

Should NEASC decide to take action, it would first send a letter to the school and offer it the opportunity to respond, the Boston Globe (subscription may be required) noted: "Rather than revoke accreditation, the agency could implement a less severe measure, including probation, to encourage changes," the Globe said.

Four years ago, the accrediting agency terminated recognition for Atlantic Union College in South Lancaster, Massachusetts, over financial issues. The 128-year-old school, operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, later closed.

But it's Gordon College's faithfulness to its beliefs, not its finances, that are under scrutiny now. The school has a "community covenant" that prohibits sex outside of the marriage of a man and a woman, and says it "is, and always has been, an educational institution grounded in our commitment to Christ," according to the open letter Lindsay posted.

"Be assured that nothing has changed in our position regarding admission or employment. We have never barred categories of individuals from our campus and have no intention to do so now," Lindsay wrote. "As long as a student, a faculty member, or a staff member supports and lives by our community covenant documents, they are welcome to study or work at Gordon."

Lindsay added, "I sincerely regret that the intent of this letter has been misconstrued, and that Gordon has been put into the spotlight in this way."

That regret wasn't enough for the City of Salem, whose mayor abruptly ended a contract with Gordon that allowed the school to operate Salem's Old Town Hall, a tourist attraction and meeting venue. Mayor Kimberly Driscoll, in a letter to Lindsay, specifically cited the Christian school's beliefs and standards, which she said could not apply in a "publicly owned facility" such as the town hall, as the reason for breaking its deal.

"I am truly disappointed in the stance you have taken, which plainly discriminates against the rights of LGBT individuals, both on and off campus," Driscoll wrote. “These actions fly in the face of the City of Salem’s Non-Discrimination Ordinance, which prohibits our municipality from contracting with entities that maintain discriminatory practices. While I respect your rights to embed religious values on a private college campus, religious freedom does not afford you the right to impose those beliefs upon others ... I hope you realize how hurtful and offensive these 'behavioral standards' are to members of the greater Salem LGBT community, some of whom are Gordon alumni, staff and/or students."

Driscoll's news release said that June 20, "the Human Rights Campaign — America’s largest LGBT civil rights organization — awarded Salem a perfect score on their Municipal Equality Index for the City’s Non-Discrimination Ordinance and the overall LGBT-inclusivity of the City’s laws, policies and services."

A total of 14 high-profile evangelicals and other Christians signed the letter, including Rick Warren, senior pastor, Saddleback Church; Dr. Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America; Michael Wear, who was the National Faith Vote Director for the president's 2012 reelection campaign; and Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today magazine. The letter's text specified that signers' affiliations "are listed for identification purposes only."

According to the Erie (Pennsylvania) Times-News, Kathy Dahlkemper county executive of Erie County and a former Democratic Member of Congress, apologized for signing the letter and asked Wear to remove her name from the document: "She called her decision to sign the letter to Obama 'an error in judgment,'" the paper said.

Wear has not yet responded to a Deseret News inquiry about who drafted the letter to Obama.

General support for a religious exemption, which, Lindsay noted, was previously endorsed by President George W. Bush in 2002, may be difficult to find. The Los Angeles Times, criticizing the open letter Lindsay signed, declared in an editorial: "A church that believes homosexual conduct is a sin has a constitutional right to insist that its clergy and religious teachers share that view and live by it. That doesn't give the church a right to refuse to hire a gardener or cafeteria worker because he or she is gay."

The consequences of society rejecting a faith-based moral standard have yet to be fully understood, Alan Noble, an assistant professor at Oklahoma Baptist University, wrote at The Atlantic's website: "Behind all of these charges is the suspicion that evangelicals are simply refusing to accept contemporary American mores; they are privileging their faith over the moral spirit of the age. But for many evangelicals, these beliefs are not actually a sign of retreat from public life. Instead, there is a fear that in an increasingly secularized society, there will be less tolerance for people who wish to act upon their deeply held religious beliefs, except in narrowly defined, privatized spaces. This is a fundamentally American concern: Will I have the right to serve God as I believe I am obligated to?"

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com Twitter: @Mark_Kellner