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Two major evangelical organizations have formally endorsed principles that would add sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) to federal nondiscrimination law.
The boards of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) quietly passed similar motions in recent months, advancing a multiyear effort they say is necessary to preserve religious freedom.
“As Christian higher educators, we are increasingly persuaded that the most viable political strategy is for comprehensive religious freedom protections to be combined with explicit support for basic human rights for members of the LGBT community,” Houghton College President Shirley Mullen—one of several people who sit on both boards—wrote in a position paper provided to NAE board members.
CCCU President Shirley Hoogstra announced her board’s vote to member presidents in August, but did not publicly announce the move.
The NAE motion—obtained by WORLD—unanimously passed in October. It’s titled “Fairness for All” and calls on Congress to consider federal legislation consistent with three principles:
• We believe that God created human beings in his image as male or female and that sexual relations be reserved for the marriage of one man and one woman.
• We support long-standing civil rights laws and First Amendment guarantees that protect free religious exercise.
• No one should face violence, harassment, or unjust discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
“Fairness for All” is a concept based on the “Utah Compromise”—a SOGI law with religious exemptions. The 2015 legislation remains the only statewide SOGI law enacted over the last seven years.
WORLD contacted a dozen of NAE’s 106 board members for comment, but most either did not respond or declined to speak on the record. Communications director Sarah Kropp Brown said NAE is “involved in various conversations on how to address legal conflicts that arise between religious freedom and civil rights,” but the board has not endorsed “specific legislation.”
The board actions come two years after Hoogstra and NAE President Leith Anderson held a series of informational events about Fairness for All at locations around the country. In response, more than 75 Christian leaders signed an opposition statement titled “Preserve Freedom, Reject Coercion.”
Pastor Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, is the only NAE board member who signed the opposition statement, but 17 signers are affiliated with CCCU institutions.
In a statement provided to WORLD, the CCCU said its strategies are “not meant to represent the specific positions of our individual campuses, but rather reflect the wisdom of our board of directors as determined to be in the best interest of advancing Christian higher education in the public square.”
David Dockery, president of Trinity International University, is a former CCCU board chair and one of those who signed the opposition statement. His opinion has not changed, although he said securing rights for all Americans is a laudable goal.
“I commend the intentions of those who have proposed the FFA initiative,” Dockery wrote in an email. “I think that they believe they have touched all of the bases with this proposal, but I and many others think that the proposal, though well intentioned, falls short of that outcome.”
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called Fairness for All counterproductive: “Placing sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in this kind of legislation would have harmful unintended consequences, and make the situation worse in this country, both in terms of religious freedom and in terms of finding ways for Americans who disagree to work together for the common good.”
Critics argue that any legislation in the mold of Fairness for All would protect explicitly religious entities, such as churches and Christian schools, but not Christians in the secular marketplace—including florists, bakers, and other professionals who have faced litigation and fines under SOGI laws.
Supporters say those conclusions are premature. Johnnie Moore, president of the KAIROS Company and an NAE board member, told me he backs the motion because it puts down markers in an important conversation.
“I haven’t found any board member that I’ve interacted with that was willing to give an inch on religious freedom protections,” Moore said. “It would be myopic to say because members of the board are willing to have this conversation they are slipping away from orthodoxy.”
Moore praised NAE for moving at the pace of its board and said those “hyperventilating” need to calm down: “Don’t jump to a conclusion until we have a document.”
Critics say the effort is poorly timed, given that the current administration and Supreme Court are more friendly toward religious freedom. But supporters argue the opposite is true.
“The fact that these basic human rights for the LGBT community are already secured for nearly 60 percent of the country at either the state or local level suggests that the window for this exchange of protections at the national level is narrow,” wrote Houghton president Mullen. “There is an opportunity in this moment that is not likely to last.”
Supporters believe either the courts or Congress will eventually settle the issue—and courts more often uphold religious protections in legislation over those derived from the First Amendment.
No lawmaker has introduced federal Fairness for All legislation, but talks are reaching a new stage. The CCCU has distributed a provision-by-provision analysis of potential legislation and supporters have drafted documents—reviewed by WORLD—to launch two coalitions in support of it. One is called “Faith Together for Freedom”; another is “Alliance for Lasting Liberty.”
According to the NAE website, its board is meeting today to discuss Fairness for All for the third time in three weeks: “We anticipate that the content on each call will be different as we provide up-to-date information regarding coalition and legislative progress.”