Monday, July 14, 2014

Hobby Lobby and Quakers

Most of the time when I hear or read about something offensive a Christian group has done, I almost never have to worry that Quakers have somehow been to blame. That is until now. Right on the heels of the controversial Hobby Lobby Supreme Court ruling, George Fox University, a politically conservative Quaker school in Oregon, will prohibit a transgender student from being able to live on campus. Fellow Quaker writer Daniel Borgen has written about the issue in depth.

A little Quaker 101 is in order. The Religious Society of Friends is divided into branches. I’m deliberately oversimplifying a little in my description, but Evangelical Friends form one branch. Conservative Friends form a second. Pastoral Friends are the third. And unprogrammed Friends, like me, form the fourth branch in this description. Unprogrammed Friends are probably the most liberal group. Evangelical Friends are often the most conservative.

I often use the example of Judaism to illustrate my point. Some Jews are Reformed, some are Conservative, and some are Orthodox. Each has very different religious practices and rituals. Though Friends seek to minimize rituals and creedal requirements in our daily dealings and Meetings for Worship, we have our own unique peculiarities from branch to branch. Many Evangelical Friends would not seem out of place among any Evangelical group like Conservative Presbyterians or Southern Baptists.

Many Friends from other branches are dismayed that liberties like these were taken. Not everyone within George Fox’s denomination thinks that George Fox University’s actions throughout the process are in line with their stated theological stance. Two local Oregon pastors, Dr. C. Wess Daniels, Pastor at Camas Friends Church, and Mike Huber, Pastor at West Hills Friends Church, disagree with the college’s position:
“As pastors in NW Yearly Meeting, we urge George Fox University to provide safe housing for Jayce M,” they write. “It is our understanding that our ‘Faith and Practice’ provides no theological grounds whatsoever for excluding transgender students from housing consistent with their gender identity. As Quakers, the biblical teaching that men and women are created in the image of God convicts us that ‘… all persons have equal value and are created in the image of God’ (Vision, Mission and Values: 1). The theological framework of our Faith & Practice affirms the inherent dignity of all people, regardless of their gender identity.
What is shocking to many of us is that any Quaker school would resort to such punitive, exclusionary behavior. This has been as much of a shock to us as it is to others outside the faith. Petitions decrying the action have already been drawn out and signed. Next comes whether those opposed to this heavy-handed action can manage to apply enough pressure to reverse the school’s policy and transphobic attitudes.

The most offensive aspect of this entire sordid affair is how it was conducted, in secret and without input from anyone else.
This week, the U.S. Department of Education closed (and ostensibly denied) Jayce’s complaint, granting George Fox college an unusually speedy “religious exemption,” and for the time being dashing any hope Jayce had of living on campus with the rest of his friends and classmates. Religious exemptions, it seems, are becoming the new normal. Exemptions, however, historically take years to get, according to Southwick. George Fox got theirs in just a few months. They applied for it–in secret–while meeting with Jayce and–at the time–seemingly negotiating in good faith.

“George Fox University (GFU), without telling us, requested a religious exemption to the Title IX regulations regarding housing, restrooms and athletics as they apply to transgender students,” Southwick explains. “GFU requested this exemption from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) a mere three days before denying Jayce’s final appeal to the university and a mere four days before Jayce filed his complaint with the ED. The ED granted the request for the religious exemption with surprising speed–only two months, rather than the years it has taken historically to get an exemption. GFU continues to ignore requests from PQ Monthly for comment.
One wonders if the sneaky, duplicitous manner by which George Fox University obtained an exception will become more prominent by institutes of higher learning in times to come. It flies in the face of our Testimonies, specifically the Testimony of Equality, which was used to justify Civil Rights activism on behalf of African-Americans. Equality has been used in recent years to speak to LGBT rights and marriage equality. Once again, the split between branches in Friends shows itself painfully, revealing the difficulties in what we call cross-branch work.

The Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, still festering, has set in motion a thousand other legal actions and forthcoming court cases. The justices who voted in favor may have sought to bring an end to the issue, but they’ve only stirred the pot. Other schools, probably those of a conservative bent, may try to restrict enrollment or housing towards transgender or gender non-conforming students. This is far from the end of the issue, far from the end of ceaseless litigation and brinkmanship.
“To my knowledge, this is the first Christian college to ask the federal government for a permission slip to discriminate against transgender students,” Southwick says. “This is worse than Hobby Lobby because George Fox is largely funded by taxpayer money.
The so-called culture wars strike again. I am reminded that our country can be a very ideologically conservative one, enough so that some members of the Supreme Court may feel they must guard against what they deem as too much liberal intrusion. This decision, in addition to being atrociously bad policy, has opened Pandora’s Box. I foresee those of us on the Left having to put out an endless procession of small fires. On this issue, litigation is the only option available to us, one that is expensive and slow as molasses. We must and we will carry on, but at great expense and expenditure of time. It shouldn’t have to be this way.

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