Eastern University alumni fighting a request to discriminate

    Barack Obama

    President Obama puts his hand to his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance at the 102nd Abraham Lincoln Association banquet in Springfield, Ill., in 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

    Alumni of Eastern University in Delaware County are not waiting for the law to end discrimination; they are appealing to the university’s president directly.

    In 1801, three men representing the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, wrote to President Thomas Jefferson about members of their state legislature who they asserted were using their position to intimidate people of differing religions.

    Jefferson responded with a letter about three paragraphs long in which he refers to a wall separating church and state, which exists to protect those on the fringe of religious society from persecution and discrimination by those in power. However, Eastern University is using this letter to defend discrimination.

    Requesting the right to discriminate

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    On July 21 of this year, President Obama signed an executive order making it illegal for any federal contractors to make discriminatory employment decisions based on sexual orientation or gender identity. These terms were added to executive orders that previously made distinctions on discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, national origin, handicap, or age.”

    In the name of their beliefs, an array of religious leaders, asked the president in a letter in June to add a provision to his then-proposed executive order exempting religious organizations from the anti-discrimination rule, on the grounds that it infringes on their religious freedom:

    “This Executive Order shall not apply to a corporation, association, educational institution or institution of learning, or society that is exempt from the religious provisions of title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

    President Obama did not add this provision, despite warnings in the letter that “any executive order that does not fully protect religious freedom will face widespread opposition and will further fragment our country.”

    Portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 already make hiring discrimination based on religious ideology immune to nearly any law seen to infringe on the beliefs of any religious sect.

    The specific rights the signers want to apply to their corporations, associations and educational institutions are the rights to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Within the Eastern University student and faculty handbooks, for example, homosexual conduct is listed as an adequate reason for termination. Unfortunately, going beyond this, it states that homosexual conduct is detrimental to the well being of the university.

    Faith. Reason. Justice. Really?

    Ryan Paetzold has taken issue with that clause in the Eastern University handbook since he first became aware of it. After hearing that University President Bob Duffett signed on to the letter asking for specific language in Obama’s executive order, Paetzold, now an Eastern alumnus and founder of OneEastern, took it upon himself to create a petition requesting that Duffett rescind his signature.

    A similar petition was started in Massachusetts when the president of Gordon College signed the same letter directed to the White House. Their participation in the letter caused them to lose a contract with the city of Salem, and they are now up for accreditation review — which conservative commentators liken to bullying and have rallied to oppose.

    The strong resistance and procedural discrimination against a particular group of people because an aspect of their lives offends the religious hierarchy led to a question now being asked of Gordon College by the city of Salem and the college accreditation council: What’s to stop an organization that would withhold one of the most valuable resources, employment, because of a difference in personal lifestyle, from withholding other valuable resources from those they receive federal funds to serve and educate?

    In the petition to Duffett, Paetzold and fellow Eastern alumni, staff, students, and Pennsylvania residents, wrote, “that a commitment to ‘Faith, Reason, and Justice’ requires that we reject all forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation or sexual identity.”

    Paetzold was excited about the direction Eastern could take on this. He was surprised Duffett, who has been at Eastern only a year, even signed the original letter to President Obama. As far as Paetzold was concerned, Eastern was making real progress with its recent official recognition of a university-run LGBTQ organization, Refuge, which had not been granted an official status in previous years.

    A policy of discrimination, not discrimination

    But Paetzold was disheartened by Duffett’s response to the petition, in which he said Eastern would continue their current policy and that they do not discriminate. He based his signing of the letter on the principle that “the wall of separation that President Jefferson affirmed to the Danbury Baptists must be maintained to the benefit of society and all Christian institutions.” Duffett’s letter left more questions than answers.

    Who was breaking the wall of separation? Was it the executive order granting equal employment protection regardless of gender and personal sexual life affirmations? Or was it the religious organizations trying to insert provisions for their specific religious beliefs into government documents? If Eastern has no intention of discriminating based on sexual orientation, as Duffett stated, then why sign the letter sent to Obama regarding the executive order in the first place? If Eastern does not discriminate, why does the language for adequate termination specifically mention homosexual conduct? And why ask for religious provisions in an executive order because of a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote over 200 years ago?

    In the Danbury letter, Jefferson said:

    “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.'”

    While I understand the reasoning behind the university’s claim that their religious ideals are being challenged by the executive order, or any law they see as contrary to their belief system, LGBTQ equality does not constitute religious belief becoming law, and it does not prohibit any practice of another’s religious belief. Particularly, when title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 already allows religious scrutiny in hiring.

    It is Duffett himself, and every signer of the letter asking the president of the United States for exemptions for very specific religious beliefs, who would break this sacred wall between church and state.

    As to prohibiting the free exercise of their religion, the Eastern faculty handbook also states that the university was founded so that “scholarship and faith were joined to address issues of faith and justice.” It would seem that challenging and expanding their thoughts on justice and equality with regard to their faith is precisely in line with the principles of the university.

    As faith grows, the heart and mind open

    Growing up in a religious home and pursuing a life devoted to Christian tenets, Paetzold admits equality for the LGBTQ community was not an issue he considered much before his faith grew. One place where that faith grew was Eastern University. “As my understanding of God evolved, my perspective on this issue evolved,” he said. “God cares more about relationships between people than what they do with their anatomy.”

    He is not the only person who has begun to think more profoundly about reconciling his religious beliefs with LGBTQ equality. In early July, Florida Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly decided to support marriage equality. After explaining that he had specific Christian beliefs, he said he also saw that:

    “as a matter of Constitutional principle, I believe in a form of limited government that protects personal liberty. To me, that means that the sanctity of one’s marriage should be defined by their faith and by their church, not by their state. Accordingly, I believe it is fully appropriate for a state to recognize both traditional marriage as well as same-sex marriage.”

    While there is still strong opposition from some who identify as “traditional Christian,” as Jolly does, he is one of four U.S. House Republicans who have begun to reconcile faith and politics to support marriage equality. In April, Eastern Mennonite University started talking about restructuring their hiring policies. Upon receiving a position, new hires have been made to sign a contract stating that that, if they are in a marriage, it is heterosexual. Eastern Mennonite will now consider, among other changes, recognizing the relationships of married homosexual couples and committed couples.

    The petitions in response to the presidents of Eastern University and Gordon College show the same tide among some who have seriously studied religious texts and see no conflict between Christianity and sexual identity and orientation. Paetzold has read those texts and says Christianity understands “relationships as love. Consistently Jesus is standing up for the marginalized.”

    The petition from the Eastern alumni does not go so far as to insist that the University reverse its stance on all sexual aspects of a person’s life falling under religious scrutiny, which includes adultery and sex outside of marriage. At least, not yet. “We’re not asking Eastern to affirm any relationships; we are simply asking them not to discriminate,” said Paetzold. “We’re not looking to be activists. We want Eastern to be a sanctuary, for everyone, including the LGBT community.”

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