Religious institutions struggle to find their place amid advances in LGBT rights

A mission statement is displayed near the entrance to Gordon College in Wenham, Mass.
A mission statement is displayed near the entrance to Gordon College in Wenham, Mass. Elise Amendola, AP

Lindsay’s support for an exemption from a civil right for gays unleashed long-simmering campus tensions over the school’s assertion that it has created a safe place for lesbian and gay students, while maintaining a conduct policy that singles them out. The school bars sex outside of marriage for everyone in the Gordon community, while also specifically banning “homosexual practice.”

OneGordon, a group for gay students, alumni and their allies, is now pressing the college to eliminate the language.

“There should be the same sexual ethic for LGBT and heterosexual students,” said Paul O. Miller, an alumnus and co-founder of OneGordon.

The uproar over Lindsay’s letter also prompted local community leaders to take another look at Gordon’s policies. The college hires gays and lesbians, but because of the ban on “homosexual practice,” effectively requires them to be celibate. Mayor Kim Driscoll of Salem responded by ending Gordon’s contract to manage the city’s Old Town Hall.

Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum ended its academic relationship with the school and withdrew support for Gordon’s grant application to the National Endowment for the Humanities. The New England Association of Schools & Colleges started a review of the controversy.

Some community leaders said they didn’t know before that Gordon was an evangelical institution, or didn’t fully understand what that meant.

“I had no idea that Gordon was even a Christian school,” said Rick Starbard, a Lynn public school teacher for 14 years and a School Committee member for five.

The committee voted 4-3 in late August to end its 11-year partnership between Gordon and Lynn public schools over Lindsay’s position. Thousands of Gordon volunteers had taught English to refugees, installed art in public elementary schools, distributed toys and gift cards at Christmas and helped students with their homework. Gordon had an office downtown, with a director who joined the boards of several local service agencies.

“Anybody can have the personal beliefs that they want, but it does become different when you play in a public school,” said Starbard, who nonetheless voted to keep the partnership with Gordon. “I think there was a knee-jerk reaction to this and people didn’t think out the long-term implications.”

Tucked into a forested corner of a small town, Gordon is known for staying out of public fights on divisive social issues. When the Massachusetts Supreme Court recognized same-sex marriage in 2003, making the state the first in the country to do so, then-Gordon president Judson Carlberg issued no public statement.

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