Last Monday, Bowdoin College made page one of the New York Times with its decision to de-recognize an evangelical student group for refusing to sign an anti-discrimination pledge. This meant the group could not use the chapel, the multicultural center, any room at Bowdoin, or even campus bulletin boards. The pledge said all campus groups and their leadership positions must be open to all students. The group said it would accept non-believers as members, but not as leaders, because leaders are the custodians of doctrine, so religious freedom is at stake.
Bowdoin managed to change its mind twice during the week, rebutting the Times story on Tuesday, (“Religious freedom and spirituality are alive and thriving at Bowdoin. Contrary to the Times article, the College continues to recognize the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship (BCF) and has no plans to drop that recognition after this summer. ”) then switching again on Friday to acknowledge that the Times had been right, saying that the BCF is “discriminating and that is a violation of our policy, …so they would lose their recognition.”
Bowdoin in effect fired the longtime unpaid advisers to the student group, Robert Gregory and his wife Sim, disabling their keycards. Bowdoin added a nasty slur to Gregory as a departing gift. According to the Bowdoin Orient, Tim Foster, dean of student affairs, said the initiative for the pledges grew partially as a reaction to the Penn State scandal in 2011 in which assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of child molestation. “One of the things we realized,” Foster told the Orient, “is that we have people on our campus working with students, spending a significant amount of time with students, and we don’t know a lot about a lot of these people.” But the Gregorys have worked with the group for almost a decade, and their dedication and helpfulness is not in dispute.
Gregory, a lawyer and also a minister, said signing the agreement would constitute a violation of his Christian faith. So he offered a revision, saying that “The signature on this agreement shall not be construed to limit in any way the right of the undersigned Volunteer to hold, teach and practice his/her sincerely held Christian religious beliefs and to follow, hold, and teach the religious beliefs and practices of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship….” Bowdoin rejected this version.
The hardnosed response from the administration surprised many students, The religious group has been on campus 40 years with no accusation of bias or compromising pledges to sign. “This is new, adminstrators acting forcefully against their own students,” said Owen Strachan, a Bowdoin grad and Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky. “A new narrative is being born, that all sexualities and sexual identities are equally valid, and Bowdoin has forced the hand of its religious groups.
The specific issue is that activist gays and their allies have been pushing colleges around the country to view the traditional Christian view of sex–all sex outside of male-female marriage is sinful—as discriminatory, and using anti-discrimination measures to bring them to heel.
We look at it a different way—that religious groups should have absolute freedom in the process of picking their leaders and for college administrators to begin intruding on that process under cover of anti-bias rules is true discrimination and a very obvious violation of religious freedom.