Gordon College prof sues over sexuality policy spat
by Laura Finch
Posted 5/10/16, 10:50 am
Another religious liberty fight has broken out between a Christian university and one of its faculty members. Gordon College, in Wenham, Mass., is facing a retaliation lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of a professor who claims she was punished for making comments about the school’s stance on sexuality.
Gordon did not terminate tenured philosophy professor Lauren Barthold but did deny her a scheduled right to apply for a promotion, according to an ACLU statement. Barthold also claims she was demoted from her position as director of gender studies minor and that Gordon threatened to fire her over her comments.
According to school officials, a panel of Barthold’s peers, the Faculty Senate, decided the disciplinary actions. Spokesman Rick Sweeney said action was warranted because Barthold publicly called for harmful actions against the college. Barthold’s suit claims Gordon retaliated against her public opposition to its hiring policy, but Sweeney noted the school has encouraged dialogue on the subject. During a period of intense discussion on campus about sexuality, Gordon invited a dozen speakers with a wide variety of positions to address students, including David Gushee and James Brownson, whose positions are directly at odds with Gordon’s, Sweeney said.
On its website, Gordon defended the sanctions against Barthold by noting she made her comments “in a harmful way at a time when Gordon was under media scrutiny.”
The controversy began in July 2014 when the Obama administration issued an Executive Order to “prohibit federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.” Several Christian leaders, including Andy Crouch and Rick Warren, sent a response letter to President Barack Obama asking him to exempt religious organizations from the order. Gordon president Michael Lindsay was the only university head to add his name.
Lindsay faced a swift and vociferous backlash. In response, he emphasized that Gordon welcomed all students.
“We have never barred categories of individuals from our campus and have no intention to do so now. ... 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,” he said in a written response.
That community covenant proscribes sex outside marriage and prohibits homosexual practice: “Those acts which are expressly forbidden in Scripture, including but not limited to blasphemy, profanity, dishonesty, theft, drunkenness, sexual relations outside marriage, and homosexual practice, will not be tolerated in the lives of Gordon community members, either on or off campus.”
In the middle of the chaos, Barthold wrote a passionate op-ed to the Salem News in which she claimed not to support boycotts against the school but hinted she could “see reasons for both economic sanctions (so to speak) and for asserting yourself (your views, your money, your actions) more actively into the community—depending on your situation.” Barthold also wrote about feeling embarrassed to tell her gay friends she worked at Gordon, spoke of pain she had suffered while working there, and noted how often she had been tempted to quit.
Barthold is asking for compensatory damages, attorney’s fees, and an injunction preventing the university from continuing its disciplinary action against her. She has requested a jury trial.
Last year Wheaton College found itself in a similar public fight with a faculty member after political science professor Larycia Hawkins said Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Wheaton began proceedings to fire Hawkins, but before the faculty group could debate the issue, administrators reached an amicable settlement agreement with Hawkins. Neither party disclosed the terms of the agreement, and Hawkins went on to take a position at the University of Virginia.
Laura is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course.