Gordon College’s fundamental right to be different

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/05/04/gordon-colleges-fundamental-right-to-be-different/

Gordon College is once again under fire for being a self-consciously Christian college. Cultural elites in Massachusetts insist that Gordon should abandon its moral ideals and that members of the college community should conform to the moral sameness that pervades other campuses. If those elites would pay closer attention to the writings of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, they would know that Gordon has a fundamental right to be morally different.

The latest attack on Gordon is in a Massachusetts court. Gordon philosophy professor Lauren Barthold, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, has filed a lawsuit against Gordon College alleging that the college unlawfully discriminated against her on the basis of sex and in retaliation for her opposition to the college’s moral code of conduct. The College denies the allegations, and says that the faculty decided to discipline Barthold, not because of her views, her sex, or her association with particular groups, but because she wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper in which she called for economic sanctions against the college.

Barthold suggested that hostile action against her employer might be a justified means of pressuring Gordon to abandon its life and conduct statement, by which Gordon faculty and students voluntarily commit to living according to Christian moral teachings. That conduct statement affirms the college’s identity as “a Christian community, distinguished from other Christian communities by its primary commitment to provide a liberal arts education,” and distinguished from other liberal arts institutions by its commitment “to maintain itself by fostering those ideals and standards that are consistent with a Christian worldview.”

The policy does not discriminate against non-Christians or sexual-identity minorities. It simply requires that all students and employees live by the college’s moral standards during their time at Gordon. Barthold herself has acknowledged the “many… LGBTQ-identified students who have found deep friendships, intellectual growth and spiritual support [at Gordon].”

This is the latest episode in a serial attack on Gordon by those who disagree with the college’s moral principles. For nearly two years now, sexual-identity partisans and opponents of religious liberty, especially the Boston Globe, have falsely accused Gordon of illegal discrimination, violation of accreditation standards, and other misdeeds. These allegations have not withstood scrutiny, and it seems unlikely that this latest charge will stick. More plausible is that this complaint is merely the most recent effort by cultural elites to pressure Gordon College to stop being so intentionally Christian. But as Justice Ginsburg explained in a landmark Supreme Court opinion in 2010, colleges and universities have a right to coordinate their campus lives to promote their distinctive purposes and identities.

This right is secured by written guarantees in the constitutions of Massachusetts and the United States, but the right itself is older than both of those documents. It is the ancient right of property, brought to Massachusetts by the first colonists in the seventeenth century and preserved as part of our fundamental law ever since. As Justice Ginsburg explained, a college’s right “to preserve the property under its control for the use to which it is lawfully dedicated” is the source of its power to commit itself to a moral vision.

Gordon College’s property right guards its liberty to devote its campus life to its own purposes and values, which other educational institutions might not share. It is a right to be different. Cultural elites in Massachusetts might not appreciate Gordon College’s unique culture, but they should value the liberty of all educational institutions in Massachusetts to pursue excellence in their own ways.

Adam J. MacLeod

Adam J. MacLeod

Adam J. MacLeod, a graduate of Gordon College and Notre Dame Law School, is an Associate Professor at Faulkner University, Jones School of Law.