This story was originally published on Aug. 27, 2013 on PennLive.
This week, hundreds of freshmen will descend on Messiah College, an interdenominational Christian college in Upper Allen Twp. where differences are “celebrated, appreciated, and allowed to remain distinct” according to the school’s admissions office.
During welcome week, as they bid mom and dad farewell, ready their ramen and deliberate on joining the ultimate frisbee or French club, each freshman will be asked to sign a code of conduct called the Messiah College Community Covenant.
In signing, students agree to follow four rules: to commit to academic integrity and excellence, express Christian values, abide the rules and avoid “sinful practices.”
Those “sinful practices” include “drunkenness, stealing, dishonesty, profanity, occult practices, sexual intercourse outside of marriage, homosexual behavior, and sexually exploitive or abusive behavior.”
It’s the ban on “homosexual behavior” that has raised eyebrows among both students and nonstudents.
“I feel like it’s a little unnecessary,” said Adam Rineer, a gay sophomore at Messiah. “The covenant already says there is no sexual activity to be permitted on campus.”
“One of my good friends put it really well: It’s almost like saying ‘No stealing,’ but also ‘black people can’t steal,’” he said.
In a summer that has seen the striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act by the Supreme Court and the legalization of same-sex marriages in five states, a ban on “homosexual behavior” for a college of nearly 3,000 students is out of step with the current social momentum.
It’s a ban that has brought national criticism down on the school, most recently in May 2013 when acclaimed singer-songwriter Josh Ritter called for fellow musicians to boycott playing at the school referring to the policy on Facebook as “exclusionary and bigoted.”
His comments received more than 6,800 likes on Facebook and more than 1,400 comments, many of which were commendatory. Ritter received national attention for his stand, and the comments were repeated by major news venues including The Associated Press, Huffington Post and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
But Messiah stood by its covenant. “The Community Covenant is one of Messiah’s foundational documents,” said Randall Basinger, the college provost, one of the chief administrators in charge of academic and student life at the college. “We’re a faith-based institution, so we have documents that spell out certain theological assumptions we have.”
If a student chooses to not abide by the covenant, the administrative policy is to contact the student for a discussion. Other courses of action may follow, including expulsion. No student, however, has been expelled because of issues relating to the Community Covenant’s sexual behavior rules, said Kris Hansen-Kieffer, dean of students at Messiah.
If a student has a question about the covenant they are encouraged by the school administration to contact student affairs with their inquiry.
Messiah isn’t the only protestant Christian college using “homosexual behavior” in its student handbook. Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Beaver County, includes it in the student handbook as one of a list of morally unacceptable practices. In the Statement of Community Responsibilities at Houghton College in Houghton, N.Y. it is listed as a scripturally-prohibited act.
Other schools, such as Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. opt for more precise language. There, the student handbook prohibits sexual misconduct, which includes “sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, premarital, extramarital and homosexual genital activity.”
Among student handbooks at Pennsylvania Catholic universities, homosexuality barely gets a mention. Villanova University in Villanova, St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, DeSales University in Center Valley, LaRoche College in Pittsburgh and Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia gloss over the topic all together.
However, Gannon University in Erie states in its student handbook that the university “in remaining committed to its Catholic moral tradition, cannot condone a sexually active gay lifestyle,” later adding that it encourages chastity for all.
Messiah’s policy on homosexuality is more ambiguous. When it comes to defining “homosexual behavior” at Messiah, Provost Basinger said that could be done on a “case by case basis.”
When confronted with the fact the term could mean anything from winking at a member of the same sex to having oral sex, Basinger still preferred to not solidify a definition.
“I don’t think we’re interested in pursuing that level of detail,” he said. “But we’re open for clarification when needed.” That clarification however, will be given to students on the aforementioned “case by case” basis.
That was the same attitude Timothy Mackie, Class of 2010, was confronted with during his time as a writer for the Messiah student newspaper, The Swinging Bridge. He wrote a series of articles in 2009 in which he interviewed gay students, as well as faculty and administration, about what Messiah is like for homosexual students.
“In all of my research — and I interviewed Kim Phipps (Messiah College president), Randy Basinger and several people involved in student life and Rob Pepper (director of graduate enrollment and student services) — none of them were able to give me a straight answer as to what exactly homosexual behavior entailed,” he said.
“They preferred to take it on a case by case basis, and that bothered me because it seemed like the interpretation of what was homosexual behavior was up to the personal biases of whatever administrator happened to be involved.”
According to Mackie, that reluctance for a public clarification of the covenant is a real problem for Messiah. “The school was always willing to have conversations, but that was it,” he said of his time studying there. “There was never any meaning behind the conversation. It was basically: [the covenant] is inviolate, it’s not subject to discussion and changing the policy is not an option.”
Mackie is frustrated with the constant discussion around the issue that, ultimately, leads to zero action.
“A conversation is just a conversation unless there’s some sort of promise that the conversation can lead to change,” he said. “Otherwise the conversation is basically masturbatory, it makes you feel good but it doesn’t lead to change.”
It is a conversation that has been going on at Messiah for decades. Nate Wright, Class of 1996, remembers discussing the anti-homosexual behavior policy with fellow students and administrators.
“I think this sort of wishy-washy, 20-some-years of not making up their mind is not doing anyone any favors,” he said. “I think it’s time to make a change”
Emily Yoder, Class of 2009, agreed. “I think the school talks a lot about having a dialogue and I think they need to move on to action,” she said.
An open dialogue is what the school’s former students are demanding.
“I think that’s what people want to do and that’s what you’re seeing on Facebook,” said Dan Webster, Class of 2009, regarding the social media uproar after Josh Ritter’s comments in May. “Really, the yearning is that people just want to talk about it. While everyone will not be in agreement with the outcome of that conversation, that’s the healthy thing to do.”
But how much does the covenant really impact student life?
For Webster, who is straight, it was less of a strict rulebook and more of list of guidelines.
“You can hold to all of these rules and sort of ideas and philosophies, but if you break away from them, then you have to be cognizant of how you’re doing that,” he said. “I was always very cognizant that, if I did move myself away from the Community Covenant, I was doing so smartly and not hurting others in the process.”
Rob Holland, who is openly gay and 2009 alum, had a similar opinion. He viewed the Community Covenant as a baseline, a statement of what the administration believed, according to which it challenged students to live. It was to serve as a framework for discussion. “If you want to disagree, fine,” said Holland, interpreting the covenant, “let’s tease it out and see if this really holds water.”
Webster also feels the document is fundamentally fluid. “People change when they’re in college — it’s one of your most turn-the-corner moments in your life. You’re learning a lot, soaking it all in and changing your views,” he said. “The document evolves with you and your opinions evolve about the document as you go through your experience at Messiah.”
Being gay at Messiah
Holland was open about being a gay man during the majority of his college career at Messiah. However, he disagreed with Ritter’s Facebook remarks.
“I think the implication was, because Messiah has this prohibition, that it’s an unwelcoming and bad place for gay Christian kids to go,” Holland said. “That wasn’t my experience and that’s where I tend to disagree with [Ritter].”
Holland came out while a sophomore at Messiah and he credits the mentors he had within the school’s administration and faculty for helping him through that time.
“They helped me through going from an evangelical Christian who thought what he was feeling meant he was an abhorrent person to someone who was able to reconcile his personal feelings and personal life with his faith traditions,” he said. “I don’t think I could do that any other place than Messiah.”
Messiah’s emphasis on critical thinking encouraged him to evaluate his sexual orientation and his faith. “Just working through those discussions one on one with [my mentors] and them providing me space to think about it rather than trying to one, give me the answer, or two, tell me to stop think about it — that was instrumental in my ability to develop,” he said.
Holland was not the only student to come out as gay while at Messiah, according to Mackie, who interviewed several for his “Swinging Bridge” articles on homosexuality at Messiah.
“Most of the gay students I knew there came out while they were in school and had grown up fairly conservative,” he said. “The social environment I found was pretty accepting towards gay students.”
When he officially came out, Holland was already a resident advisor, and one of his responsibilities was enforcing campus policies — including the covenant.
“At first, I said, ‘Look, you guys need to change the Community Covenant,'” he recalled. “Then we had this discussion and I understood this ‘leaving space to discuss things’ thing. They’re making it a safe space for both sides of the issue.”
Holland even talked with the administration prior to coming out, letting them know in advance what he planned on doing. “They said, ‘How do you think that’s going to affect your ability to interact with your fellow students?'” he remembered, noting that the discussion was not about whether or not homosexuality was right or wrong, but instead about what the effects of coming out would be when it came to his position as a student leader.
Holland said his experience was unlike that of Isaiah Thomas in 2011, who was bullied and harassed for being gay.The harassment eventually led to Thomas leaving the school.
The harassment of Thomas is one of the reasons Rineer has not come out to everyone on campus. He is out to a few friends, but he does not feel comfortable with broadcasting his orientation.
“Overall, I feel safe – but sometimes, I feel like maybe I’m being judged,” Rineer said. “But by not being completely open [about being gay], [life at Messiah] is pretty okay.”
Holland found that being openly gay turned him into a talking point. “It gave me an ability to engage in very nuanced conversations with people… I would never have had a chance to discuss these things,” he said, recalling how he was the “first gay person” some of the students had ever met.
“There were many people at Messiah that — through having conversations about homosexuality, and knowing someone and walking through that struggle with them — went from having a very conservative, anti-gay view of homosexuality to a much more open and accepting one,” he said.
Ryan Barlow, who attended Messiah from 2004-2006, credits Messiah for turning him into an ally for the “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.”
“Through my time at Messiah, I developed… independent creative thinking, and through my time there, it solidified my support for LGBT rights,” he said. “I came out in favor of that issue because of — not despite — my education there.”
According to Holland, “As an individual like myself, and the other gay kids who went to Messiah, it could be difficult to exist in an environment with some people who disagreed with your ‘lifestyle’ choice.”
As a resident advisor throughout his sophomore and junior years, Holland did not date.
For him, it was an issue of integrity. “I chose to be a leader on campus and to uphold the values of that campus,” he said. “I said I would uphold the college’s desire to neither endorse or hinder these things that we are still discussing, so I felt like it would have been hypocritical of me to say, ‘I said I was going to do what the college says on these difficult issues, but I want to explore a relationship.'”
“As far as I was concerned, [dating] could wait,” he said. “At the very least, then I knew through that decision I was upholding the commitment that I had made.”
More than 550 Messiah alumni signed a petition created by the Inclusive Alumni group to have the Community Covenant remove the reference to “homosexual behavior” as a barely-defined “sinful practice” that calls for subjectively-defined disciplinary action against students.
“It is an administrative policy that has discriminatory language and I don’t see any reason to not have that removed immediately,” said Yoder, one of the founders of Inclusive Alumni.
The group also seeks to add “sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression” to the school’s list of things that students cannot be harassed for. Among that list are “race, religion, gender, disability, age, economic status, ethnicity or national origin.”
“A policy where it explicitly states these students are protected would really do a lot for these students,” Yoder said.
Rineer agreed. “I would want it changed because a lot of LGBT Christian prospective students look at that and it scares them off, not realizing the community itself is pretty accepting,” he said.
Webster is one of the alumni who have signed the Inclusive Alumni petition.
“I think it absolutely does need to be changed,” he said. “There’s disenfranchisement of a group of people who have identities just like everyone else in the community and in some way — they’re not necessarily being ostracized — but they don’t feel comfortable in their own skin at college, which is a contradictory thing because Messiah is very much a school that promotes community ethic.”
Holland, unlike those in Inclusive Alumni, is not necessarily sure changing the covenant is the issue. He disagrees with the ban on “homosexual behavior,” but believes that at the end of the day, the Community Covenant is just a document.
“When I was [at Messiah], there was a push to change the Community Covenant…” he recalled. “Instead of creating a discussion about [homosexuality], we focused on a document and drew lines in the sand regarding a document.”
Holland supports having an open dialogue instead, in which everyone’s voice and opinion has a chance to be heard, a goal in which Webster believes, too.
“On a large scale, the civil dialogue that needs to happen isn’t [happening],” Webster said. “Clearly it’s a contentious thing and it’s not going away.”