A task force established by the university’s administration is in the process of reevaluating university policies dealing with sexual conduct under a framework provided by the Board of Trustees earlier this semester. Once finished, members of the task force will advise the Senior Leadership Team on whether to change the policy or leave it as is.
The topic of sexual orientation and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) individuals has been prevalent in board meeting discussions since August when the Supreme Court required states to recognize same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges in late June. At its annual February meeting, the board provided a base for the university’s administration to work off of in the evaluation and reconstruction of the student sexual stewardship policy and employee code of conduct.
Dr. Phil Schubert, president of the university, said the task force, including board members Elise Mitchell, Rick Atchley, Bill Minick, Eddie Sharp and Barry Packer, and staff members Chris Riley, Jim Orr and Slade Sullivan, was carefully selected for each individual member’s exposure to the matter. He said the societal changes that came from Obergefell vs. Hodges changed some of the previously established precedents and brought to the forefront the fact that administration needed to consult with the board.
“We thought to engage our board in conversations about the subject in order that we would have clarity from them with regard to where the board would want to see the institution place its emphasis and state its values in regard to this landscape,” Schubert said.
Packer, chair of the board, said the board was responsible for clearly identifying the values of the university that would guide the administration regarding LGBT policies.
Packer said the board decided that the values that should guide the administration are:
Chris Riley, part of the task force and vice president of the Office of Student Life, said the statement came after months of evaluation of literature and scriptural sources, panels and retreats focusing solely on LGBT matters.
During a discussion at a retreat, members of the board heard from Randy Harris, Dr. Sally Gary and Dr. Richard Beck as part of the literature and scriptural sources.
Three students, two former students and one current student, spoke on a panel in November alongside Phil Vardiman, chair of the Faculty Senate, and dean of students Mark Lewis.
Packer said the board asked administration to convene a panel to help its members understand the issues related to sexual identity and those who experience same-sex attraction and identify as LGBT.
“This conversation was most beneficial in helping trustees to understand the unique challenges facing those who experience same-sex attraction on a Christian college campus,” he said.
The task force is still working to clarify the policy language.
Although it may be in discussions more often now than in was in past years, the presence of gay and lesbian students on campus is not new territory for ACU.
Several years ago, a group of students published an online magazine depicting student life at ACU through the eyes of someone who identifies as LGBT.
Voice, as the group called itself, was first recognized in 2011 and has since continued to grow into a support group for members of the LGBT community on campus.
Dr. Kristina Davis, assistant professor of communication and sociology and faculty adviser for Voice, said the group has wanted the university administration to be aware of the presence of LGBT students on campus since it began.
“We’re in a really specific situation because our students, especially our students who are LGBTQ, feel like they are not represented here at ACU and they are not welcome,” Davis said. “A lot of them have to stay in the closet to be accepted here at ACU. I think it’s very important for our students to know that there are not only safe places, but also safe people here at ACU. You know, people that they can talk to about their struggles with their sexuality and know that they’re not going to be judged, they’re not going to be condemned.”
Davis said even though having a more openly gay community on campus might make other students and members of the ACU community uncomfortable, it’s important to treat each facet of the students equally.
“They want to have a place at the table, just like everyone else,” she said. “What they really want to see, is the university at least to provide safe spaces for students who are LGBTQ to come and talk about their struggles.”
Lulu, sophomore and member of the LGBT community, requested a partial identification to protect herself from backlash and unwanted attention. Like Davis, she said the most important aspect of her experience here has been finding a safe community to talk about her sexual orientation.
“It’s just been really reaffirming and helped me grow spiritually, in the sense that I’ve seen people who are Christ-like and who are gay,” she said. “I’ve seen people who are Christian and who can affirm and who have been able to show this balance, who I think are truly doing Christ’s work by showing love to everyone no matter what and operating on that principle and talking through tough questions. It’s been because of them.”
Chris Riley, vice president of student life, said it’s time for the university to acknowledge that there are gay and lesbian students on campus, and that the university should do the best it can to support and welcome them.
Part of the board’s and university’s concern, much like other Christian colleges and universities, has been the effect of Title IX religious exemptions in light of the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges.
Under Title IX, a university must not exclude any student in the U.S. from participation in, denied benefits of, or subjection to discrimination on the basis of sex under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
In accordance with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges on same-sex marriage, many Christian and otherwise religious educational institutions have begun reevaluating their stances on LGBT conduct on campus.
If these institutions chose to remain traditional in their views of sexual orientation and seek to stay away from adopting policies that “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization,” they may file for a Title IX exemption with the Department of Education to avoid losing status as a tax exempt entity.
For some institutions, it just means creating a clear stance on the LGBT matter.
As for ACU, Riley said most of the confusion for students about the university’s stance has been a lack of communication and vague wording.
The sexual stewardship and student code of conduct currently says, “relationships or their behavior expressions outside of this example are not condoned by Abilene Christian University and are subject to disciplinary or other appropriate action.” The “behavior expressions” portion of the code was previously interpreted as the act of same-sex dating, or taking an individual of the same sex on a date.
Since becoming vice president of student life, Riley has struggled with how to interpret the policy for any behavior short of premarital sex, which is treated the same, regardless of sexual orientation, as grounds for disciplinary actions.
“I guess the real question is ‘do we ever kick people out for ‘gay behaviors’?’ Since I’ve been here, no,” he said. “It’s definitely one of those things, just like any violation of our code, depends on the student’s response and our ability to talk to individuals and explain our expectations.”
Riley said he hopes that as a result of this process the policy will be clear that the university welcomes and loves all students regardless of their sexual orientation, while clarifying which actions qualify as category II violations.
“Basically, my hope is through this process we’ll be able to explain to students there is going to be a limit, but being gay, lesbian, or same-sex attracted is not a violation of our policy. So, we haven’t done a really good job, I don’t think, in being communicators of that level of acceptance that exists at this point, so it leaves a lot of people guessing.”
Lulu said ACU should be a place where all students can safely and happily receive their education without concern for their mental or physical well being.
“I would want for all residents to be safe no matter what their orientation is,” she said. “For people to be able to get the support they need without having to dig like I did. I’m really glad that ACU is doing this, and I hope that we continue to progress.”
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