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Religion | May 30, 2012

Shorter University's lifestyle agreement prompts resignations

Religion

School's definition of acceptable employee conduct is part of effort to return to biblical roots

Shorter University, a Baptist school in Rome, Ga., faced a firestorm of criticism in October when it announced it would require faculty members to sign a lifestyle pledge as part of this year's annual contract renewal process.

Critics bemoaned the pledge-which includes prohibitions against premarital sex, adultery and homosexuality-as antiquated and discriminatory. They warned it would force some longtime faculty to resign and propel the school back to its conservative Christian roots.

But that was the point, say administrators, who acknowledge some faculty have left rather than sign the new agreement. Shorter, like other Baptist institutions that gradually eschewed Christian values in favor of a more secular liberalism, is at the tail end of a fight to return to its founding principles. Unlike schools that severed ties with their state conventions and became almost completely secular institutions in the last 30 years, Shorter has gone the other way, strengthening ties with Georgia's Baptists and other evangelical Christian colleges around the country.

Despite some reports that as many as 50 faculty members had decided to leave the school over the new lifestyle agreement, President Donald Dowless told World on Campus he's only received 37 resignations so far. And he's not even sure all of them stem from disagreement with the school's policy changes. On average the university loses 20-24 faculty members each spring. Last fall the school had 109 full-time faculty members on its main campus in Rome, in north west Georgia, and three satellite campuses in Atlanta. The school has an additional 300 adjunct professors and 200 staff members.

Dowless said the school is already hiring replacement faculty. Professors, he noted, who will sign the agreement.

The Personal Lifestyle Statement addresses prominent issues not well-defined in the faculty handbook that teachers must read and affirm when they sign their annual employee contracts. The board of trustees, in an effort to clarify what is considered acceptable behavior, created the agreement last fall. From the outset it was clear that some would not sign, Dowless said.

Dowless invited employees to privately voice their concerns to him and ask questions once the agreement was introduced. Those conversations were cordial but shared common themes. The faculty members who spoke with Dowless said they viewed the agreement as a rejection of people, a misconception he was quick to dispel.

"We love and cherish people," he said. "We are people who love and believe in Jesus Christ."

The pledge addresses church attendance, fidelity to Shorter, and drug and alcohol use. But the statement that generated the most criticism addressed human sexuality: "I reject as acceptable all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible, including, but not limited to, premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality."

Shorter trustees' adoption of the Personal Lifestyle Statement and two other faith-affirming documents-a Statement of Faith and the Biblical Principles on the Integration of Faith and Learning-follow a battle over the school that culminated in the state's highest court in 2005. Three years earlier, the school's leaders voted to break its relationship with the Georgia Baptist Convention. After suits and counter suits, the Georgia Supreme Court eventually ruled the school would remain an affiliate of the state convention.

At the same time Mercer University, in Macon, Ga., and Belmont University, in Nashville, Tenn., fought successfully to disassociate themselves with their state Southern Baptist conventions, in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Since that time, both schools added protections for sexual orientation to their nondiscrimination policies. Furman University, which split from the South Carolina Baptist Convention in 1992, added protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity to its nondiscrimination policy.

But lifestyle contracts are common at Christian universities, said Pam Jones, a spokesperson for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Shorter joined the organization after the 2005 court decision. Schools must meet certain standards, including ensuring all faculty members are professing Christians, in order to be granted CCCU membership, Jones said. Each campus uses its own vetting process to fulfill the requirement.

Dowless, who became president in June 2011, just a few months before the Board of Trustees approved the new policies, knew about the pending revision before he took office. He had no problem defending them: "These are biblical morals and values. I applaud them," he said.

Dowless does not see a conflict of interest in declaring biblical truth in an environment conducive to asking questions, as some of Shorter's critics have claimed.

"We believe all truth is God's truth and there is no area of inquiry where God is not," he said.

Shorter is just the latest school to face criticism over its views on homosexuality. Several evangelical Christian colleges, including Biola University, Wheaton College and George Fox University, have endured criticism and pressure from gay alumni and students over similar lifestyle pledges.

Jim Guenther of Guenther, Jordan & Price, general counsel for the Southern Baptist Convention, anticipates more conflict as Christian colleges and universities struggle to balance scriptural and government mandates.

"Time will tell how future conflicts will arise," he said. "Some may arise out of new legislation. Some may arise from new interpretations of old laws."

Guenther points to Title IX, the 1972 federal legislation that prohibited sex discrimination at federally funded schools, as one example. The law has been reinterpreted by some schools-both secular and Christian-to include nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

As the conflict plays out, Christian schools likely will have more legal battles ahead, Guenther said: "Church-related colleges must, in my opinion, be allowed to be institutions which reflect their individual faiths rather than be required to reflect values which, though popular, violate their beliefs."