Freedom to choose comes with consequences
by Mark Andrews
Nov 02, 2011 | 1155 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Online comments began storming last week when Shorter University announced changes to university and employee policies -- some of which people have called "too broad" and "overreaching" in that they require employees to reject homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle and bans the consumption of alcohol anywhere where students could be present.

While a private Southern Baptist university has the legal right to require employees to behave in a way that they see fit and professors have the right to choose to teach at a non-private university, does this new policy have the potential for a slippery slope to directly affect students, enrollment and employment? Also, is having an anti-gay policy at a private university anything new or is the South just perpetuating for the local and national media a stereotype of intolerance and prejudice?

Time will be the only real answer for the former question. As far as the later question goes, it's not as if Shorter is breaking new ground for private college conduct policies in what president Donald Dowless was quoted as calling an "affirmation of our Christ-centered mission."

For example, faculty, as well as students, at private colleges across the U.S. face similar policies, coast to coast.

Westmont College, a Christian college in Santa Barbara, Calif., requires students to sign a statement saying they'll reject "occult practices, sexual relations outside of marriage, homosexual practice, drunkenness, theft, profanity and dishonesty" and the student handbook for Regent University, a Christian college in West Virginia, bans "... homosexual conduct or any other conduct that violates Biblical standards."

The language on the new Personal Lifestyle Statement at Shorter requires employees to state they will not engage in the use, sale, possession or production of illegal drugs, reject as acceptable all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible, including, but not limited to, premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality, will not use alcoholic beverages in the presence of students, and will abstain from serving, from using and from advocating the use of alcoholic beverages in public ... in settings in which students are present or are likely to be present and will not attend any university sponsored event in which they have consumed alcohol within the last six hours.

In Utah, the Honor Code for the private Brigham Young University until 2007 banned students from participating in "any behaviors that indicate homosexual conduct, including those not sexual in nature," later revising the code to say "Brigham Young University will respond to homosexual behavior rather than to feelings or orientation ..." However, the code also bans advocacy of homosexuality stating, "... Advocacy includes seeking to influence others to engage in homosexual behavior or promoting homosexual relations as being morally acceptable" -- language comparable to Shorter's requirement for faculty to reject all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible. This is where questions have been asked about whether the Shorter policy is too overreaching.

Here's a hypothetical scenario on why the language may be too broad or overreaching and could cause potential problems down the road. The policy requires employees to "reject as acceptable all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible," but it doesn't say how much employees should reject homosexuality -- meaning passive behavior could be deemed as accepting behavior. For example, is watching the popular television show "Glee," which portrays gay high school students, or being a fan of gay advocate and recording artist Elton John grounds for termination? This certainly isn't the same as being on the frontlines of Atlanta Pride, but both are activities that include the acceptance of homosexuality and even the inadvertent financial contribution to pro-gay organizations.

If this policy were to be passed down to students -- like they were at the colleges and universities I've previously mentioned -- does that mean a student faces expulsion if he's caught with a Lady Gaga album or with a box set of the original "Star Trek" series, which featured a gay actor, George Takei, an advocate for gay rights?

My examples are a reach, but the intent is to look at why the Internet is buzzing with the complaint the language is too broad in areas, including homosexuality and alcohol use.

Does banning alcohol use "in settings in which students are present or are likely to be present" mean employees could be terminated for making a toast at a wedding reception because a student also is in the private wedding party? Is having a beer and hot dog at an Atlanta Braves game means for termination because students might be one of the thousands in attendance at a sporting event in another city?

We don't know at this point the extent to which the code will be enforced, nor do we know how Westmont determines whether their students are being dishonest at any given time. However, we do know that if one pursues a private entity for employment or education, they might have to give up some of their freedoms to do so.

On the other end of the spectrum, working for or learning from a public entity means you'll likely have more freedom and personal rights, but with more freedom you have to accept the probability of being offended.

In July 2010 a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by a graduate student from Eastern Michigan University -- a public university -- claiming she was wrongfully terminated from her counseling job for refusing to counsel gay and bisexual clients on their relationships. In early October her arguments were presented in a federal appeals court, and according to reports, there is no timeline for their decision.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan have filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting EMU.

Louise Melling with the Center for Liberty said on her Oct. 4 blog, "The issue is not whether EMU's students are entitled to their personal beliefs. They surely are. Rather, the issue is whether EMU may require those who enroll in its program to abide by the American Counseling Association's Code of Ethics, which forbids counselors from discriminating in their practice, or imposing their own values, attitudes and beliefs on their clients."

The lawsuit likely will remain unsuccessful, considering the school's counseling program does abide by ACA's code of ethics and public universities have policies requiring equal access for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.

While many supposed Shorter students and alumni who are commenting online say requiring employees to take the pledge is simply intrusive and a black eye on what they feel the college should represent, doing research on how different colleges operate might have provided a little warning as to what the potential consequences are for choosing to work for or attend a private college.

Mark Andrews is The Daily Tribune News' education reporter.