BRUNSWICK, Maine – Bowdoin College officials have banned a local lawyer and his wife from leading campus Bible studies with students after the couple refused to sign a non-discrimination agreement they say violates their Christian faith.
“The college has terminated us,” said Robert B. Gregory of Damariscotta.
Gregory, along with his wife Sim, are volunteers with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, a charitable organization that promotes Christian ministry on American college campuses through Bible studies, social gatherings and leadership training.
The Gregorys, both graduates of Colby College in Waterville, have been providing Christian ministry at the Brunswick campus for almost a decade as advisors to the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship (BCF). They lead weekly Bible studies in Thorne Dining Hall, facilitate chapel services on Sunday evenings, and host off-campus events of many varieties.
For nearly a decade, the Gregorys have been a fixture of Bowdoin’s community and source of counsel and comfort for college-aged Christians. But last year administration officials informed the Gregorys they would be required to sign a non-discrimination agreement in order to continue serving as an advisor to BCF.
“If someone’s participating in an organization and they are LGBTIQA [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Questioning, Asexual] and they are not allowed to participate in that organization because of their sexual orientation or they cannot lead that organization because of their sexual orientation, then that’s discrimination,” said Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster, according to the Bowdoin Orient.
According to the Orient, Foster said the initiative grew partially as a reaction to the Penn State scandal in 2011 in which assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of multiple counts of child molestation.“One of the things we realized,” Foster told the Orient, “is that we have people on our campus working with students, spending a significant amount of time with students, and we don’t know a lot about a lot of these people.”
Gregory, who runs a Damariscotta-based law firm and is also a minister, had no qualms submitting to a background check. But for him, signing the agreement would constitute a violation of his Christian faith. So he offered a revision to the agreement that would protect his right to teach the historical Christian faith — without Bowdoin’s censorship. Similar religious exemptions have been adopted at other American colleges and universities.
The suggested amendment to the agreement read, in part, as follows: “Reservation of Rights to Religious Beliefs and Practices: The signature on this agreement shall not be construed to limit in any way the right of the undersigned Volunteer to hold, teach and practice his/her sincerely held Christian religious beliefs and to follow, hold, and teach the religious beliefs and practices of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the conduct of its campus ministry at Bowdoin College.”
In a Feb. 5 email obtained by The Maine Wire, Nathan Hintze, associate director of student activities, rejected Gregory’s compromise language.
“I’m sorry that you have decided not to agree to the College’s volunteer policy,” said Hintze. “Both the Muslim and Catholic volunteers have in fact agreed without reservation…. It is simply unacceptable to have College-recognized student organizations effectively discriminate against individuals in violation of Maine law, which protects students’ right to fully participate as members of an organization and to lead that organization regardless of one’s sexual orientation.”
Although Hintze and Foster both allege the BCF has engaged in discrimination, neither provided Gregory with an example of such discrimination. Gregory said Bowdoin’s new policy is not a reaction to anything BCF leaders or members have done.
“They’re fighting against wars that aren’t happening. They’ve got they’re troops lined up and there is no enemy on the other side,” he said. “I don’t understand it.”
When the college refused to grant the Gregorys an exception to the agreement – an exception that would allow them to teach the entire Bible, including passages regarding sexuality and marriage – he and Sim refused to sign. As a result, Hintze told Gregory in an email last week: “We’re not interested in continuing to debate these issues, so we will proceed with finding a new advisor for BCF.”
The Gregorys’ expulsion from Bowdoin will become effective in May.
Hintze said additionally that the Gregorys would only be welcomed to campus as invited guests if they signed the non-discrimination agreement.
Gregory told me the ordeal is especially perplexing considering the BCF has never prevented someone from participating in or leading the group as a result of differing beliefs. “BCF has been an all-comers organization, in that we welcome all students,” he said.
“No one, in my experience, has ever come to me or come to me or Sim and said, ‘you mistreated me,'” he said. “We’ve had candid discussions about what the scriptures say about homosexuality. All of those students have told me they respect the way Sim and I address those issues.”
“All we try to do is teach the scriptures,” he said.
The text last year was the book of Hebrews, he said. This year it’s been the parables of Jesus Christ.
Gregory said he has been encouraged by his conversations with students in BCF and believes the ordeal will ultimately strengthen Bowdoin’s small Christian community.
“These kids get it, they understand – there is a cost of discipleship,” he said.
Bowdoin is not the first elite private college to have conflict with Christian groups over Biblical teachings on sexuality.
In 2011, the Colby Christian Fellowship (CCF) reportedly prevented a homosexual student from leading a weekly Bible study because of her sexual orientation. As the result, CCF relinquished its formal group status and now operates unofficially.
In 2012, officials at Vanderbilt University in Nashville implemented a policy that led several Christian groups to lose their status as official campus groups. The Vanderbilt policy was a reaction to the impression that Christian groups were using faith-based litmus tests to ban homosexuals from participating.
The BCF has experienced some controversy, as well. In 2009 and 2011, some members of the Bowdoin community were offended by what they viewed as conservative Christian beliefs being espoused during Sunday evening chapel services. In 2011, the offensive message was a local pastor’s reading of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
The stakes of the present debate at Bowdoin extend beyond the Gregorys to the core of what it will now mean to be a Christian at the college. For Gregory, the college administration’s concern is not merely with his ministry, but with the historical teachings of Jesus Christ as presented in the Bible.
“We now have Bowdoin College defining Christianity,” he said.
In a Feb. 3 letter obtained by The Maine Wire, Will Truesdell, InterVarsity’s Northern New England director, articulated both his and the Gregorys’ concern about the non-discrimination agreement’s potential infringement on religious faith.
“I am concerned that Rob has been informed by Bob Ives that Bowdoin’s interpretation of its non-discrimination policy would prohibit him (and, by extension, the student group) from using religious criteria to choose the religious leaders of the group and would limit the religious texts and teachings the group may consider,” Truesdell said. “I believe Bowdoin’s commitment to inclusion, tolerance and non-discrimination would be undermined if your office interprets the non-discrimination policy in this way. I am concerned that your office’s position unnecessarily interferes with the fundamentally religious character of the student group. When a religious group cannot study their religious texts or freely select leaders who affirm and embody their religious beliefs, the group ceases to be a faithful representative of that religious tradition.”
Carroll Conley, executive director for the Christian Civic League of Maine, said Bowdoin’s expulsion of the Gregorys is yet another example of the hostility toward religious sentiment prevalent in this country.
“This is a perfect example of intolerance toward people of faith who hold positions contrary to popular culture,” said Conley. “Religious freedom is fast becoming a privilege afforded only to those who bow down to the agenda of political correctness rather than the fundamental right our Founding Fathers so vehemently protected.”
“The actions of the Bowdoin College administration speak loud and clear: anyone who embraces and espouses the orthodox Christian teachings on human sexuality is disqualified from participation in campus life even as a volunteer at the request of Bowdoin students,” he said.
Last year, the National Association of Scholars issued a controversial report about Bowdoin entitled, “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” (pdf)
But now an equally valid question is, “What Does Bowdoin Forbid Teaching?”
Editor, Maine Wire
(Disclosure: Robinson attended Bowdoin College and was a member of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.)