Discrimination charge turns on gay advocates
College may have 1st Amendment case
No college has taken more flak after running afoul of the gay rights movement than Gordon College, but it turns out the small Christian institution in Wenham, Massachusetts, also has some supporters.
One of them is Lori D’Amico, a parent in Lynn, Massachusetts, who submitted petition signatures last week to require the city’s school district to hold another hearing on its vote to bar Gordon undergraduates from serving as student teachers in the Lynn system.
Another is Peter Kirsanow, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who fired off a letter to the Lynn mayor last month warning her that the school committee had violated the First Amendment by discriminating against Gordon College students based on their religion.
The uproar was spurred by Gordon President D. Michael Lindsay’s joining July letter from religious leaders to President Obama, asking him to carve out a general religious exemption from an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Critics have blasted the request as proof that Gordon condones discrimination, but Mr. Kirsanow disagreed.
“As noted above, no one has claimed that a Gordon College student teacher has discriminated against a Lynn public school student on the basis of their sexual orientation, or even made a comment about sexual orientation,” he said in his letter.
“The Committee is discriminating against these college students purely on the basis of their association with Gordon College and their imputed religious beliefs,” he said. “This the Constitution forbids.”
In other words, Gordon College may well have a legal case against some of the organizations that have banished the college since Mr. Lindsay’s July 1 letter went public.
But that’s not a course of action Gordon plans to pursue, said Gordon spokesman Rick Sweeney.
“We’re very grateful for the support, and I thought the point he [Kirsanow] made in terms of the rights of students in this situation was very helpful to point out,” Mr. Sweeney said. “At the end of the day, we’re still hopeful that the city will consider where there could be a middle ground to allow us to work with them again.”
Gordon has taken the high road despite an onslaught to its reputation of nearbiblical proportions. Although Mr. Lindsay said he had signed the White House letter — along with 14 other religious leaders — as an individual and not on behalf of the school, Gordon has borne the brunt of the backlash.
A week after the letter was sent, Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll ended the city’s contract with Gordon to manage the Old Town Hall, citing Mr. Lindsay’s “hurtful and offensive” stance. Shortly thereafter, the Peabody Essex Museum cut off its relationship with the school’s museum studies program.
In August the New England Association of Schools and Colleges announced that Gordon would have a year to prove that its “policies and procedures are nondiscriminatory” based on its long-standing Life and Conduct Policy against “homosexual practice.” The college calls on all students to avoid sex outside marriage, with a biblical definition of marriage as a male-female union.
At Emmanuel College, a Catholic school in Boston, athletic director Pam Roecker said that Emmanuel would no longer compete against Gordon sports teams after the 2014-15 academic year, according to the student newspaper The Hub.
“The foundation of everything [in Emmanuel athletics] is based on fair and equitable treatment,” said Ms. Roecker in a statement.
On Aug. 28, the Lynn School Committee terminated its student-teaching program with Gordon on a 4-3 vote, based on Mr. Lindsay’s letter, which committee member Charles Gallo said came as proof of an “intent to discriminate.”
“We severed all ties between Gordon College and the Lynn Public Schools on the basis of an express intent to discriminate against the LGBT community in its hiring practices, but not on the basis of its religious belief or behavioral code of conduct,” said Mr. Gallo, who authored the motion.
“They can believe whatever they want. They can have whatever religious beliefs they want, but when they cross the line and get into intent to discriminate, that’s when it becomes a problem,” he said.
For 11 years, Gordon College had been sending student teachers to the Lynn schools, an urban district with a larger number of low-income students. Mr. Gallo called the program “insignificant,” but Ms. D’Amico, whose son attends the high school, said the loss of the student teachers has hurt students.
“I think our students — especially Lynn Public Schools, we’re a large urban district, we have a high poverty level, we have over 15,000 students, and 85 or 90 percent are low-income — we need all the help that we can get,” said Ms. D’Amico. “My friend had a Gordon student teacher come in for an entire semester for his classes, and she was wonderful.”
Her petition requires the committee to hold another hearing within three months of certifying the petition. So far the school is still awaiting word from the city clerk that the signatures have been certified, said Lynn schools spokesman Tom Iarrobino.
Mr. Gallo said the school district had actually been doing Gordon a favor by helping its student teachers fulfill their community service requirements, adding, “It’s not like the Gordon students were coming in and doing this out of total altruism.”
“Their volunteer involvement was very limited. You have to draw the line somewhere,” Mr. Gallo said. “If the Ku Klux Klan, for example, made the best school lunch in the world, we’re not going to hire them to make the school lunch in the Lynn Public Schools.”
Mr. Sweeney had no comment in response beyond, “If Mr. Gallo is equating a Christian college with a hate organization, I will let his statement stand on its own.”
After the vote, Gordon was forced to cancel 10 student teaching placements scheduled for the fall as well as free reading tutoring offered after school. The school had also planned an October event called “Places You’ll Go,” which was slated to bring 600 Lynn students to the college campus for a day, Mr. Sweeney said.
Mr. Gallo isn’t running for reelection in November, which means the board’s position could change. But he also said that he would be willing to reconsider allowing Gordon students back into the schools if Mr. Lindsay were to resign.
“I don’t have an MO against Gordon, but I think that they need to change their tune on this issue, and, to be very blunt about it, I think the board ought to think about replacing Mr. Lindsay, with all due respect,” Mr. Gallo said. “And by taking those steps, even if I was still on the committee, I think we should consider partnering again.”
Mr. Sweeney insisted that “President Lindsay is not the issue,” and that the letter “was not, as Gallo has claimed in the past, a ‘request to discriminate.’”
“The Lynn School Committee is punishing Gordon students, and, by extension, their own students because of their affiliation with a set of religious beliefs, and not for any way they have ever treated anyone in Lynn,” Mr. Sweeney said.
What may be getting overlooked in the debate is that Gordon has never been a hotbed of right-wing activism. If anything, the nondenominational college leans left within the context of evangelical Christianity. In addition, the school has in the past hired any number of gay employees and accepted gay students without incident, Mr. Sweeney said.
Gordon has moved to defend itself in the public relations realm by retaining O’Neill & Associates, a Boston firm headed by Thomas P. O’Neill III, son of the longtime Democratic House speaker from Massachusetts.
So far Gordon’s admissions have not suffered, with the number of applications received a little higher than last year, Mr. Sweeney said. The school has about 1,800 undergraduates and about 300 graduate students.
“We’re hoping folks will remember the type of institution we are and respect the religious beliefs that are part of that, none of which have ever been imposed on anyone outside of Gordon College,” Mr. Sweeney said. “Again, that’s kind of the irony here. We’ve always been a place that’s been very welcoming. We’re willing to engage with anyone.”
“The Committee is discriminating against these college students purely on the basis of their association with Gordon College and their imputed religious beliefs. This the Constitution forbids.”
— Peter Kirsanow, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
Gordon College is among the many conservative religious institutions struggling to find their place in a landscape rapidly changing in favor of gay rights.