Union University's action to rescind grad student's admission draws criticism, support

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JACKSON, Tenn. (BP) -- Union University has recently found itself in the spotlight of the ongoing faceoff between religious liberty and sexual liberty.

The school -- affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention and located in Jackson, Tenn. -- rescinded a graduate student's admission after learning he had violated Union's Community Values Statements he had signed by being in a same-sex relationship. Alex Duron, the applicant, shared the news in a Facebook post Tuesday (July 21), prompting a social media backlash against Union but also expressions of support from Baptist leaders.

The incident is another in a continuing series of cultural and legal conflicts between the freedom of Christian and other religious institutions and individuals to act upon their convictions and the freedom of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Southern Baptist religious freedom leader Russell Moore said Union, "as an evangelical Christian institution of higher learning, holds to the same convictions about marriage and sexuality held by Christians of virtually every wing for more than 2,000 years, rooted as these convictions are in Scripture and in the mystery of Christ revealed in the Gospel."

"As such, Union, as any private religious institution, has the right to determine the boundaries of moral expectations of those who are part of its community," said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in written comments for Baptist Press. "This is a principle repeatedly affirmed and reaffirmed by the Constitution and the Supreme Court of our country.

"Americans can freely debate with one another in the public square -- including on these big questions of the meaning of human sexuality and marriage -- but we should all recognize the freedom of religious institutions to carry out their mission consistent with their beliefs about theology and ethics."

Randy Davis, president of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, said the board is proud Union is part of the Tennessee Baptist Convention and that the school "is holding firm to its biblical convictions clearly articulated in its statement of community values that governs the actions of every student and Union employee," according to the Baptist and Reflector, the convention's newsjournal.

Union President Samuel (Dub) Oliver and the admissions staff "acted with respect toward the individual and in fidelity to Scripture," and is still doing so "in the wake of the relentless negative social media attacks Dr. Oliver and Union are receiving," Davis said.

In his Facebook post, Duron said he received notice from Union the weekend of July 18-19 that his admission to the school's graduate program in nursing anesthesia had been revoked. Union, he wrote, failed to recognize "bigotry masked as religion is not Christian at all."

Union told him in the revocation letter, which Duron posted on Facebook, his "request for graduate housing and your social media profile, including your intent to live with your partner, indicates your unwillingness to abide by the commitment you made in signing" the school's Community Values Statements.

The Community Values Statements for graduate students say "sexually impure relationships" include, but are not confined to, premarital and extramarital sex, homosexual acts and cohabitation.

"Union affirms that sexual relationships are designed by God to be expressed solely within a marriage between a man and a woman," the statements say. "The Bible condemns all sexual relationships outside of marriage (Matt. 5:27-29; Gal. 5:19). The promotion, advocacy, defense or ongoing practice of a homosexual lifestyle (including same-sex dating behaviors) is also contrary to our community values. Homosexual behaviors, even in the context of a marriage, remain outside Union's community values."

In a statement released to news media, Union said of its action:

"As a Christian institution, Union University has standards of behavior for its faculty, staff, and students that are consistent with biblical teaching and historic, orthodox Christian practice. We love our students and want them to thrive and succeed, and we believe that a standard of conduct that honors God and submits to his authority is an important part of that success. All students who apply to Union University sign a statement saying they will comply with the university's values. Those students who fail to abide by those values -- or who show no intention of attempting to do so -- are subject to disciplinary measures that can include dismissal from the university."

In his Facebook post, Duron criticized the fact Union's action is legal though the school receives federal funds.

"Union University may not be right for me," he wrote. "I can accept that, but I cannot accept that our government is giving them the money to discriminate against me."

As an educational institution that receives financial aid from the federal government, Union must comply with Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex. The school claimed a religious exemption from Title IX in 2015 based on its control by the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

The Obama administration had expanded the interpretation of "sex" to encompass "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" in at least some of its regulations.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a watershed decision on gay and transgender rights in the workplace that could foreshadow a similar ruling in other areas. The justices ruled the category "sex" in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act applies to homosexual and transgender employees.

In the last nine months, two students have sued Fuller Theological Seminary, which is located in Pasadena, Calif., for expelling them because of their same-sex marriages, claiming the school violated Title IX.

It is common for evangelical Christian universities and colleges to require students to abide by standards that follow biblical teaching on sexuality.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.
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