George Orwell may be dead, but his spirit lives forever in people who fight to make words mean what they say. I’m going fight today to hold the trustees of a private Christian University in Washington State to account for bigotry, employment discrimination, and hatred wrapped in religious language.
University refuses to promote gay professor Jéaux Rinedahl
I reported last January that Seattle Pacific University, a private Christian institution associated with the Free Methodist denomination, refused to promote Jéaux Rinedahl, a successful and popular professor of nursing, solely because he’s gay.
The facts are not in dispute. Administrators told Rinedahl frankly that even though he’s a devout Christian, and even though he’s good enough to teach part time with low pay and no benefits, being gay disqualifies him from advancement.
I reported that SPU tudents were outraged and protesting on campus.
Those protests continued, culminating in a large outdoor event last Friday evening. Students and faculty spoke in emotionally charged speeches to support Professor Rinedahl and condemn the Board of Trustees’ anti-LGBTQ employment policies.
Then 72% of SPU’s faculty voted to express “no confidence” in the board. 153 faculty members voted for the no-confidence measure, 47 voted against, and 13 abstained.
Faculty laid it on the line in the measure. Most of them disagree with the board’s anti-LGBTQ Statement on Human Sexuality on religious grounds, and even those who agree with it religiously object to using it against faculty and students, who as ecumenical Christians are expected to hold diverse beliefs:
Seventy-five percent of surveyed faculty and 68% of surveyed staff object to the discriminatory hiring policy. Substantial majorities also disagree with the Statement on Human Sexuality and would like to see the statement eliminated. Even many who agree with the Statement feel that eliminating the hiring policy is compatible with SPU’s Statement of Faith. As an ecumenical educational institution, we value diversity of opinion and disagreement, and those can persist under many conditions. But in binding the institution to a policy that a robust majority of the community objects to on theological, missional and pragmatic grounds, the Board makes it extremely difficult to hold this community together, let alone steer it in a productive direction.
Board responds with Orwellian doublespeak
The faculty’s vote of no confidence has made no impression on the board. The trustees responded almost immediately with a written statement, saying they will continue to discriminate against LGBTQ students, staff, and faculty in admissions/employment decisions.
The written decision was brief, harsh, and cold:
After careful consideration and thoughtful review, to remain in alignment with the board’s understanding of SPU’s Statement of Faith and to remain affiliated with the Free Methodist Church, the board declined to change SPU’s employment policy related to human sexuality.
Perverse religious language turns word meanings on their heads:
The board recognizes that fellow Christians and other community members disagree in good faith on issues relating to human sexuality, and that these convictions are deeply and sincerely held. We pray that as we live within the tension of this issue, we can be in dialogue with the SPU community. We commit to continue to listen and be in relationship with the SPU faculty, staff and students as we seek God together and live out our calling to be a grace-filled community.
Doesn’t it sound like the board is saying they intend to listen and respect differences? When they say they commit to “continue to listen,” doesn’t it sound as if they’ve already been listening? Yet, according to faculty spokespeople, the trustees did not reach out to faculty members for discussion. The trustees made their decision with zero faculty input. Not only did they not listen, they didn’t even try.
When the trustees say they want to “live out our calling to be a grace-filled community,” don’t you just want to shout at them to break out a dictionary and look up “grace?”
The common, non-Orwellian definition of grace would mean promoting Professor Rinedahl despite theological disagreements.
Orwell’s shade is probably grinning right now. “See, I told you to be careful about people redefining words!” SPU faculty are trying to instruct the trustees on the meaning of grace and many other core Christian concepts.
Kevin Neuhouser, an SPU professor of sociology told Religion News Service the trustees are plain wrong. “Right now the board is the last remaining group that has not yet come to recognize that LGBTQ individuals can be faithful Christians.” He implied the trustees are not following Jesus.
Professor Rindahl has sued
Rinedahl filed a discrimination lawsuit January, claiming SPU violated Washington State and Seattle employment law. He could sue in federal court as well, given the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ people from employment discrimination.
Speaking to KIRO 7 last week, Rinedahl said, “They don’t have the right to judge me, number one, because my employer has no business in my bedroom.” He thanked students and faculty for their support and hopes their actions might inspire positive change.
SPU claims to be exempt from anti-discrimination law “because the University is a religious institution and its faculty members are ministers within the meaning of the ministerial exception.” They will fight for the legal right to hurt LGBTQ people.
Grace? Forgive me while I cough.
Rinedahl has left SPU for a part-time teaching position at Tacoma Community College where he earns a small fraction of what he would have earned as an associate or assistant professor at SPU.
Meanwhile the Free Methodist denomination doesn’t contribute a penny to SPU, which depends on taxpayer funds to operate. If you live in the U.S., your federal tax dollars (in the form of tuition loans, grants, and direct support) prop up an institution that blatantly discriminates against LGBTQ people despite the overwhelming opposition of its Christian faculty and student body.
Will you help spread the word? Will you help tell SPU to stop twisting language? Will you tell the trustees to stop leveraging hate in the name of Christian grace?
James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.