A Fateful ChoiceJoy Elizabeth Mosley May/June 2023
With religious freedom challenges mounting, America’s Christian colleges and universities face a fork in the road. At stake? Their identity and mission.
Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Christian higher education stands at an important crossroads in our cultural and political moment. In one direction lies a road historically more traveled, a road worn from centuries of teaching and scholarship that pondered life’s big questions and educated the whole person. This road includes many religious universities whose distinctive teaching asked students to consider every question and issue through a lens of faith.
However, the road traveled more often today does not fit that paradigm. In fact, society questions the value of all higher education, including Christian higher education. Is the cost worth it? Will my education lead directly to a job? Will I acquire skills that are immediately transferable to the marketplace?
While these questions are important and must be addressed, I believe Christian higher education should not veer down the road that prioritizes the immediate over the long-term; the job over the calling; the skills over the life of the mind.
A Vital Role
Christian colleges and universities have a rich history of offering a whole-person, faith-integrated education. As society moves toward a postmodern perspective, where truth is considered relative, we see people yearning for an ultimate truth, even if some don’t acknowledge that desire. As conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks put it: “You [Christian colleges] have what the rest of the world wants. The whole country is filled with spiritual hunger, with no vocabulary to articulate it, and Christian colleges have the vocabulary.”1
Christian colleges offer a transformational education during which students develop habits that often lead to a deeper faith. For instance, the Adventist College Impact Report found that students at Adventist colleges were seven times more likely to develop “a deeper personal relationship with Jesus” while in college than their Adventist peers from public universities. They were also eight times more likely to engage with professors who helped them “develop spiritually and/or develop spiritual values while in college.”2
Today, however, faith-forming education at Christian colleges faces myriad challenges. These include the commodification of higher education, the pursuit of technical education at the expense of the liberal arts, students who are less biblically literate, families who question the value of Christian higher education, and many more.
But there is another growing challenge we can’t afford to ignore: the notion that religious beliefs and practices are discriminatory and should not be allowed to exist, much less flourish in a higher education setting.
Religious Freedom in the Balance
I serve the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) as the head of government relations, and I have a front-row seat to the religious liberty challenges facing Christian higher education. There are numerous legal, legislative, cultural, and regulatory challenges to the mission of Christian institutions—more than I can name here. I want to focus, instead, on three areas of challenge I believe present the greatest threat: hiring, funding, and lack of mission fidelity.
Hiring is, or should be, one of the most important priorities for a Christian college. In a wholistic environment, it is not only faculty who have a valuable impact on students, but also resident directors, coaches, work-study supervisors, and administrators. Every hire should be made according to mission. Every hire, every position. Christian colleges have constitutional and statutory protection to hire those who agree with and support the mission of their institution, but some employees, activists, and legislators are challenging this protection on legal, legislative, and regulatory grounds.
One area of protection in hiring should be Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which includes explicit protection for religious hiring. However, a few courts have narrowed the Title VII exemption to say that it only allows the religious employer to require the candidate to be the same religion (a coreligionist), not to actually live out that religion. For example, in Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis a Catholic school dismissed a Catholic teacher who married her same-sex partner. The school’s policies were clear on the church’s doctrinal position, and the teacher signed a contract agreeing to abide by those policies. However, she sued, arguing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The district court determined that the religious exemption in Title VII applies only when plaintiffs claim religious discrimination, and this claim was based on sexual orientation discrimination, so the school could not claim Title VII protection. The court interprets “Title VII’s religious exemption to allow a religious employer to make hiring decisions in favor of coreligionists without facing claims of religious discrimination, but to allow a plaintiff to bring claims of other forms of Title VII discrimination.”3 To limit the religious exemption in this way means that a religious organization is protected when they make a hiring decision based on religion, but the organization cannot also expect that employee to live out that religion.
While not finding protection for the school under Title VII, the court did find that Starkey was a minister under the First Amendment ministerial exception doctrine, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.
Judge Easterbrook of the Seventh Circuit, however, wrote a compelling concurrence in which he described multiple problems. One problem is deciding the case on the basis of the constitutional question (the ministerial exception doctrine), rather than looking to the Title VII statute first. Another problem is limiting the Title VII religious exemption to only apply to religious discrimination. Easterbrook says, “The Diocese is a religious association, and the high school is a religious educational institution. Any temptation to limit this exception to authorizing the employment of coreligionists, and not any other form of religious selectivity, is squelched by the definitional clause in [Title VII], which tells us that religion includes ‘all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief.’ ” He goes on to say that “a religious school is entitled to limit its staff to people who will be role models by living the life prescribed by the faith.”4
While the Catholic school ultimately prevailed in the Starkey case under the ministerial exception doctrine, I am concerned by the weakening and narrowing of the Title VII protection. Courts are divided on the expansiveness of the Title VII exemption. Some courts share Easterbrook’s view that the religious exemption in Title VII allows religious employers to make hiring and firing decisions on the basis of both belief and practice, while other courts adhere to a more limited view. Nevertheless, given the importance of hiring for Christian institutions, any narrowing of the ability to hire for mission is concerning.
Should federal funds follow students if they choose to attend Christian colleges who support some form of disfavored belief, such as historic, biblical marriage? Many argue that in these circumstances funding should be withheld, and this represents another key challenge for Christian higher education.
One recent example is the lawsuit Hunter v. Department of Education. Current and former students at Christian colleges sued the Department of Education to eliminate the Title IX religious exemption. Title IX of the education amendments of 1972 protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. Complying with Title IX is an essential part of receiving federal funds, which makes the religious exemption vital for Christian colleges. The exemption says this provision “shall not apply to an educational institution which is controlled by a religious organization if the application of this [part] would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization.”5 Christian colleges with different denominational or historical backgrounds may claim the exemption in different parts of Title IX, such as gender identity, sanctity of life, or sexual orientation, among others. The religious exemption is important to ensure that colleges can continue to live out their religious mission and that students can bring their federal dollars with them to the college of their choice.
The Hunter case was dismissed in January of 2023, but supporters of Christian education should expect these legal suits to continue. If successful, the consequences would be far-reaching. As the CCCU statement on the Hunter case says: “This lawsuit would take federal financial aid away from hundreds of thousands of students who choose to attend faith-based colleges and universities. This would restrict student choice in an unprecedented way, preventing middle- and low-income students from being able to take their federal aid to these institutions. Seven out of 10 CCCU students receive federal funding, and the withdrawal of financial aid, including Pell grants and federal research grants, would have a disproportionate impact on low-income and first-generation college students, as well as students from racial and ethnic minority groups.”6
The threat to federal funding for Christian colleges does not only come from the judicial sector. Legislation such as the proposed Equality Act would also threaten the funding students rely on to make college affordable. Title VI governs federal financial assistance, and currently Title VI prohibits discrimination in federal funding on the basis of race, color, and national origin. The Equality Act would amend Title VI to include sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity), but would add no religious freedom provisions. Under this act, a school that adheres to traditional, biblical marriage may find they are no longer able to comply with Title VI.
While it is unlikely the Equality Act will get much traction in a divided Congress, this bill and others like it will continue to reemerge. It is possible for colleges to operate without federal funding, and it may be wise for colleges to proactively consider moving in that direction. I believe this ongoing effort to threaten federal funding for colleges that adhere to Scripture will intensify in the coming years.
The third and final challenge I want to highlight is different from the first two. Threats to hiring and federal funding are external, and I am grateful for those who advocate on Capitol Hill and in the courts to fend off these attacks. But there is another pressing threat that is internal rather than external: the temptation for Christian institutions to waver from their biblical mission.
We can all think of colleges that used to be Christian but are no longer truth-filled, faith-forming institutions. In surveying the landscape of Christian higher education, I believe this is the most pertinent threat right now. It may be difficult to believe Christian institutions would choose to depart from their mission, but the inducements can be strong. Just as some colleges have prioritized decision-making based on finances rather than on their educational mission, some colleges flirt with decision-making based on reasons other than their biblical mission. They may reason that hiring just one non-mission-aligned adjunct for one class will be better than not offering that class. Or that it just makes enrollment sense to cut faculty in the theology department to open up funding for a new program. Or its good governance to use money set aside for faculty faith-integration training for a board retreat instead. Or they may prioritize partnership with the state, and reason that changing their nondiscrimination policy to comply with general state requirements would open up more opportunities for their students.
Offering classes, opening new programs, good governance, and strong partnerships with the state are all good things. But Christian college leaders and board members must first and foremost prioritize their biblical mission, even over other good things. It is rare that a Christian college drifts from its biblical roots by making bad decisions; often it is simply by prioritizing other issues over mission fidelity. Leaders face enormous pressure to voluntarily abandon commitment to religious beliefs, and this pressure often comes from within their own constituencies: students, alumni, faculty, staff, donors, and parents. Leaders often face the opposite pressure as well: any resistance to culture-war fearmongering is perceived as becoming “liberal.”
I pray supporters of Christian higher education will understand both the external and internal threats facing these institutions and will support leaders who stand faithful in their commitment to that old, well-traveled road that focuses on rigorous, whole-person, classical liberal education, unapologetically grounded in faith.
1 Shirley V. Hoogstra, “The Value of Christian Higher Education: An interview With Shirley Hoogstra, David Brooks, and Anne Snyder,” Advance, Fall 2021, http://bit.ly/3IVQNV2.
2 100+ Good Reasons to Attend an Adventist College or University: CollegeImpact Research Report (Adventist Colleges and Universities, 2014).
3 Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., 496 F. Supp. 3d 1195 (S.D. Ind. 2020).
4 Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., 41 F.4th 931 (7th Cir. 2022).
5 34 CFR § 106.12—Educational Institutions Controlled by Religious Organizations.
6 “CCCU Update on Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education Lawsuit,” CCCU News & Publications, May 12, 2021, http://bit.ly/3ZO9wJ3.