Photo: Duke Chapel, the ecumenical chapel at United Methodist related Duke University, allows same sex/same gender weddings.
Dear Leaders of United Methodist Schools, Colleges, and Universities:
The decision of the 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church to pass the Traditional Plan has been a difficult and unwelcome one for most of our United Methodist related schools, colleges, and universities. The vast majority of our institutions of higher education embrace inclusivity, equal opportunity, and equal treatment of all students, including students who are LGBTQIA+. Leading up to the 2019 General Conference and in the months following it, the vast majority of presidents from United Methodist related institutions of higher education have reiterated their commitment to making sure that all persons who are LGBTQIA+ will be both welcomed and affirmed on our campuses.
For some institutions this has meant disaffiliating with the United Methodist Church owing to the decision to continue discriminating against persons who are LGBTQIA+, for some this has meant distancing themselves from the United Methodist Church, for others this has meant recommitting to inclusivity in spite of the GC 2019 decision and in resistance to it, and for some institutions it has meant attempting to preserve the status quo by affirming that the GC 2019 decision will not have a direct effect on campus life and policies (in other words – nothing will change).
As a reconciling United Methodist who is also a faculty member at a United Methodist related university, it is has been heartening to see so many United Methodist higher education institutions reaffirm their commitment to inclusivity, equal opportunity, and equal treatment of students who are LGBTQIA+. The vast majority of the United Methodist institutions understand that they would be on the wrong side of history if they were not to welcome and affirm students, faculty, and staff who are LGBTQIA+ on their campuses. They also know that it is not in their self-interest to discriminate against students who are LGBTQIA+. In an extremely competitive market for students, associating closely with a brand that is seen as being discriminatory is not a prudent course of action to take.
Even though I am generally pleased with the response of United Methodist institutions of higher education to the decisions made at General Conference 2019, I respectfully ask all leaders of United Methodist schools, colleges, and universities to speak with extreme clarity about how persons who are LGBTQIA+ will be treated on their campuses. This is not the time for ambiguity. Our students and other members of our academic communities deserve to know precisely where they stand. If we say that we fully accept, welcome, and affirm all persons who are LGBTQIA+, we had better mean it, we had better make sure that this is codified in our by-laws and in student, faculty, and staff handbooks, and we had better make sure that all policies and procedures at our institutions treat all persons who are LGBTQIA+ equally as compared to persons who are cisgender and straight. If an institution does not plan to treat all students, faculty, and staff equally; then they deserve to know that.
For example, the chapels on many of our campuses are important to the spiritual and community life of our institutions. They should be a place in which all of our LGBTQIA+ students, faculty, staff, and alumni are welcomed and affirmed. If a United Methodist related institution were to decide that persons who are LGBTQIA+ will not be allowed to be married in the campus chapel, then that institution is not truly committed to treating all of its students, faculty, staff, and alumni equally. It is not giving them equal opportunities that the institutions’ cisgender straight students, faculty, staff, and alumni enjoy. By the laws of the United States, a religiously affiliated institution has the legal right to determine who can and who cannot get married on its campus, but if it chooses not to allow persons who are LGBTQIA+ to marry in its chapel like everyone else, then it cannot rightfully claim to be a fully inclusive, welcoming, and affirming campus.
I cannot imagine that students, alumni, faculty, staff, and administrators of a college or university who are LGBTQIA+ would feel like their university is treating them equally or providing them with equal opportunity if they are not allowed to be married in the university’s chapel like all other students, alumni, faculty, staff, and administrators, especially if the university tells them they will never be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
Now that it is clear that the Traditional Plan will be implemented in the United Methodist Church, it is imperative that all United Methodist colleges and universities be extremely clear about how they will treat their students, faculty, and staff who are LGBTQIA+. Either they are going to be fully included and affirmed and treated as absolute equals to everyone else or they are not. If they are not going to be treated equally, college and universities need be clear about the ways and in what circumstances they will not be treated equally or be given equal opportunities. Persons who are LGBTQIA+ should not have to guess about the ways they will not be treated equally or wonder if this or that circumstance will be a time in which they will not be afforded the same rights or opportunities as their cisgender straight peers. A university should not be able to pretend to be fully inclusive and affirming and then have policies or practices that treat LGBTQIA+ persons any differently than any other person.
We owe it to our current and prospective students, faculty, and staff at our United Methodist institutions of higher education to be honest with them about how they will be treated in our communities. If all persons truly are persons of sacred worth, then it is not morally acceptable for us to offer the bait of inclusivity, acceptance, and affirmation only to switch it with discrimination and unequal treatment.