Can vs, Should

Yesterday the Orlando Sentinel published an article about the firing of an Adventist teacher at an Adventist school once it became public knowledge that he is gay.[1] This type of situation brings into stark relief what seems to be an intractable religious liberty problem – the right or ability of religious organizations to discriminate based on their religious beliefs. From a legal perspective it creates a zero-sum problem, putting two American principles at odds. On the one hand, we believe in the free exercise of religion. As such, religious organizations (and some would argue even religious adherents) should have the freedom to follow the dictates of their beliefs, even if those beliefs are out of step with where society is in how to relate to other people. On the other hand, America also believes in individuality and freedom of expression and thought. Consequently, groups of people should not be discriminated against based on who they are or certain decisions those people have made.[2] We continue to struggle about where to draw the line in terms of allowable free exercise when the dictates of someone’s faith says they must mistreat someone else.

To be clear, the Adventist Church is probably on firm legal footing in firing the teacher. There are issues that complicate the matter but, especially given the current (and likely future) composition of the Supreme Court, any cases rising to their level would most likely be decided in the church’s favor. In all likelihood the teacher signed an employment contract with some form of morals clause that stated he could be fired if he ran afoul of any Adventist Church beliefs. And since the Church’s stance on same-sex relationships is clear, the argument would be that he was well aware of what would happen if his sexual orientation became public knowledge. Moreover, both legislatively and judicially, the law has been very friendly to religious organizations. The law at issue here gives exemptions to religious organizations.[3] There is a significant issue regarding the fact that the school received money from both the state (in the form of voucher programs and scholarships) and the federal government (related to pandemic relief). The Supreme Court decided the question of school vouchers in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, finding that a voucher program, where there was no direct aid to the religious institution, did not run afoul of the Establishment Clause. The other money the school in Florida received seems to be related to the pandemic, and I think anyone would be hard-pressed to argue that religious private schools shouldn’t get pandemic relief from the government because of their potentially discriminatory practices.[4]

The issue, however, is not whether the school (or the church by connection) can take this action, but whether they should. Even if the church’s stance towards same-sex relationships remains the same, it is not a clear case that this teacher should be fired.[5]

First, I think the most compelling argument that this firing did not have to happen is the fact that the teacher taught at this institution for several years while being gay, and yet this was never an issue. In all candor, I live in the city where this is taking place, know people who work at the school in question, and would have had no idea that this was happening except the local paper reported on his firing. Furthermore, the website where the interview that led to his firing was published is not a well-known or well-trafficked site. The only reason this became a big deal was because the church made it so.

Second, I can’t get the words of Pastor Cinquemani (quoted in the article) out of my head. “Our view has always been whomever Jesus decides to exclude, we’ll exclude them, but we haven’t found anybody like that yet.” I am sure some of you are thinking to yourselves that firing him from his teaching position is not excluding him from the church, and that we have to consider the message employing him would send to our children. I wonder about that too. I wonder how privileged we must be to think that robbing someone of their ability to make a living is not a form of exclusion. I also wonder why we think about messages to our children in the most negative light possible. I would love to have to explain to our children that, while this teacher may not live in accordance with our understanding of how God wants us to live, it does not mean that he is not worthy of our love, acceptance, and grace. That every teacher in our school is not perfect, and yet they all strive to do the best for the children who attend there, and that his “imperfections” are no more or less problematic than anyone else’s. I would love for us to be a real-time example of God’s long-suffering and grace towards us, and of God’s willingness to include even the people that some of us may deem unworthy.

Finally, the hypocrisy of the church shines brightly in situations like this and it is time to be more honest about it. If we consider every teacher to be a minister, then we have to ask ourselves why so many of our ministers are not treated like this teacher. There are ministers who do real and tangible harm to people, yet they somehow manage to land on their feet, economically intact, while other ministers (women, members of the LGBT community) find themselves jobless and ostracized. If we are honest with ourselves we know that some of those ministers are never even brought to a reckoning, let alone put in a place where they have to find a way to come back from public disgrace. I have argued in this space before that what society wants from the church is not moral perfection but moral honesty. And it’s not just outward society anymore either – our own parishioners are demanding it and will seek it elsewhere if they can’t see it in us.  It harms the church when we cannot find a way to do justice and love mercy.

 

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[1] I use the term “public knowledge” because there is at least some evidence that some people knew he was gay throughout his time working there. As such, the issue would not be the actual fact that he is gay, but rather that he did an interview for a website where his sexual orientation became clear and potentially known to the public.

[2] I always find it important to note that the argument claiming sexual orientation is a choice – is a useless argument. This nation has always protected things that are central to the human experience but are also choices. Like religion for example.

[3] That law would be the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Court has ruled in several cases (most famously in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC), that there is a religious exemption for anyone the religious organization deems as “minister” and that the designation is not only beholden to actual clergy.

[4] I am basing this strictly on an argument that it would be discriminatory to religious organizations to be cut off from these types of needed funds during a public health crisis.

[5] I do want to take this out of the realm of theological argument about the permissibility of same-sex relationships. I think even in a non-accepting framework there are principles and lessons that would call for a different mode of action. I will write the rest of the piece in that frame of mind, irrespective of our theological differences on the subject.

 

 

Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.

Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/jason-hines 

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

 

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10811
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When I read an article yesterday from another publication that gave significantly more detail about the fired teacher’s life as a model father and community leader for adoptive and foster children, I was struck by his positive role in both the educational and the Orlando community.

I’ve known gay teachers in the Adventist school system who also taught for many years, but did not interview with a social media publication or otherwise accept an interview with a journalist about their private lives.

I find the “solution” from the church’s point of view to hide one’s true identity to be the only “safe” way to maneuver in the world of church life, to be ironic in the life of a Christ follower…

The light in this story is the pastor’s succinct summation of Jesus’s view: we do not exclude.

That is a refreshing approach and reflects Jesus’s acceptance of all of us. Thank God Orlando has a safe place to worship.

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Almost 60yr ago, I had a gay teacher in my SDA junior high school – a married man, with a family. I got on well with him, perhaps because we were both musicians. He gave me some lessons on the organ at our church. At the time, I had no idea he was gay. Had I found out back then, I would have been horrified … and judgmental.
It was decades before God opened my eyes to the reality that LGBTIQ people are no less worthy of love and respect than hetero people, no less worthy of God’s love, and not deserving of the opprobrium directed at them, especially by religious people. How ironic that in our zeal to keep the least of the commandments of God, we overlook the importance of love and become persecutors!
I believe it’s time we reassessed. It’s time we revisited our traditional understanding of this issue. We now know more about LGBTIQ than at any time in history, far more than the Bible writers could possibly have known. It’s not clear that we have adequately understood the little they did have to say. Sad that our church spends so little time listening to what our progressive scholars are saying! Instead, it clings to its orthodox position. It’s interesting that God commended the unorthodox Job (Job 42:7) while censuring his orthodox companions. I’m not convinced we SDAs are keeping up with present truth. In a number of areas, we seem to be dragging our feet.

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The church failing to be the church.
If teachers are ministers, are they going to get ordained, women ministers(teachers) ordination for that?

Sends a horrible message if you went to a school like that as lgbt.
Role models or not.
Then religious liberty downgraded to being a mallet rather a culture of freedom to do church things or not.

Yet another reason for quitting church.

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You are correct when you say, “There are ministers who do real and tangible harm to people, yet they somehow manage to land on their feet, economically intact, while other ministers…”. Very few ministers seem to be fired for breaches of biblical doctrine in many areas. However, the Church also believes that heterosexual adultery is a sin and in some instances, the Church has terminated ministers judged to have been engaged in heterosexual adultery. I’m not judging the facts or the ministers in those situations or the conclusions reached by the Churches in those situations, because I don’t have first hand knowledge of the facts and investigations. But, generally speaking, do you believe that Churches should not fire ministers engaged in heterosexual adultery or heterosexual sexual immorality? Also, I wonder if you seem to be more concerned with issues of gender and sexuality, even more so than issues of economic injustice as it affects the broader population. Does gender and sexuality trump issues of injustice for you in other arenas? It appears so from your essays and advocacy. Where does your emphasis derive from? Is it derived from the Bible or the sociocultural milieu? I have a sincere question. Are you trying to get people to violate the bible or their sincere understanding of the bible, by inferring that they are “bigots”? Justice Thomas recently wrote that the Obergefell v. Hodges decision “enables courts and governments to brand religious adherents who believe that marriage is between one man and one woman as bigots, making their religious liberty concerns that much easier to dismiss.” See https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/20pdf/19-926_5hdk.pdf In that statement, Justice Thomas further wrote that "Since Obergefell, parties have continually attempted to label people of good will as bigots merely for refusing to alter their religious beliefs in the wake of prevailing orthodoxy.” Is this what you are in fact doing? Does the bible support your stance? Whether one agrees with Justice Thomas’s overall jurisprudence and/or sees him as a tool of the beast power, the question remains as to whether he raises valid points in this respect.

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Great job in summing up the issues here, Jason. Thanks for a level-headed article.
Was Steven doing his job? Did his homosexual orientation interfere with his ability to teach the students?
What was the actual reason for the conference firing him? I think the conference was embarrassed for the world to see a “sinner” employed by Adventists, being publicly praised for being a good guy. Sure and simple hypocrisy. But then we give churches a pass for a lot of things they shouldn’t. It is all about saving face and not realizing you have pie all over your face.

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Complicated!

I taught in Adventist schools for 27 years. I am not gay.

I had students who were gay. I didn’t know it and didn’t even think about it.

There were a couple of teachers over those years that I found out later to be gay.

I got divorced halfway through my teaching years. I was not fired. At one time that would have been a fireable offense.

We are not supposed to have sex outside of marriage. We probably don’t know and don’t ask if our single teachers are celebrate.

Why was the teacher fired? Was he in a gay relationship? Is being gay a sin? Do we allow sinners to teach our children?

Just thinking out loud?

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Unless a teacher is under performing in their academic duties or their sexuality was a hindrance to their job performance there is no grounds for termination. Schools, Churches and other establishments are distorying there own reputation by terminating individuals for their own biases. What kinda of example is this setting for future generations?

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It is interesting that another story concurrently making the rounds in social media about adultery and sexual abuse by pastors within this same conference have not been similarly addressed by the church. That’s the hypocrisy of the make-dominated ministry that we have accepted for too long.

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Hypocrisy is an unfortunate part of this story! The man was employed as a teacher for several years with the conference knew he was gay. And the conference said nothing. Only when the question of his employment became more public was the man fired.

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The Bible would have been used to prohibit Justice Thomas’s marriage to a caucasian woman had the Supreme Court not stepped in to change that! The Bible has prohibited many things and has been used to condemn many people. Adventists are not consistent in how they apply the Bible. Yet we have no list that tells us which “sins” are allowed and which ones are not.

I found Alden Thompson’s book, “Inspiration” to be helpful with this. It asserts that these commandments still apply:

  1. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God
  2. Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.
  3. The 10 Commandments.
    (Don’t quote “adultery”, please. Homosexuality is not necessarily adultery.)

If an Adventist is found to have eaten shrimp, is he fired from church employment and/or disfellowshipped? What if they wear a poly/cotton fabric? What if they gossip or are “glutenous”?

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I appreciate the author’s legal vs. moral analysis. I think the perspective that he failed to address is the violation of the right of parents who chose a private Christian school to keep their children from being exposed to the LGBTQ agenda. It is a very real concern for some parents that these topics are being taught in our public schools. Parents have a moral and legal right (it’s one of the oldest natural rights protected by the courts) to make choices regarding the education of their children. Respecting the choice of parents to not have their children exposed to this agenda and these issues is something we should all respect, including this educator, who is a parent himself. I also think it’s irrelevant to note that the publication he was featured in is not widely circulated. He made a choice to publicly advocate for something that is not in accordance with the code of conduct he agreed to upon employment, both of these decisions were voluntary choices. I’m sure some would argue that this individual doesn’t have an “agenda” but I think it is telling that the former employee responded to his termination with a public interview to air out his grievance against the school. What witness is it to bring the world in on conflict within our ministry? Was his intention in sharing this story with the Sentinel to further the work of Christ, or to shame his own brethren in the court of public opinion?

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One summer I studied sea gulls in the islands off Anacortes, Washington. If a gull kept its head low, it was safe, but if one stuck its head up, it had a very good chance of getting nailed. People are no different.

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I’m not familiar with the “LGBTQ agenda”. Please explain what that is and what it is children should be protected from.

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It is an earth shaker that Pope Francis this week stated that he was in favor of same sex civil unions.

This astute theologian / church leader realizes that condemning gays to life long loneliness, without a partner is a cruel and sadistic punishment.

Also a monogamous union is surely better than promiscuous sex.

The Catholic Church has long been vehement and vociferous in its anti gay stance so this is a definite and distinct departure from their prior hostility and condemnation of gays.

With Adventism’s anti Catholic history, no doubt our leaders will condemn this as another “ Mark of the Beast “ heresy, when it is really a loving, compassionate and empathetic outreach to a large and significant minority of Catholic adherents ( five per cent ).

With regard to the firing of the gay teacher, the church never has an inquisitive inquisition into the sex lives of their single heterosexual teachers —- unless they are flagrantly adulterous.

There is a clear double standard in the way heterosexual and homosexual church members / employees are treated.

The church would prefer that gays lie / dissemble / hide and remain under cover rather than be their true selves.

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Yes, it probably is best that the teacher was dismissed. “Should” is best when thought of in the light of the possible interactions and exampled behavior, selected curriculum, and the possibility of keeping the preference a secret life. Many parents find this to be a zone they prefer to prevent their children from experiencing during their developmental years for the sake of avoiding confusion.

In our free America we can practice many freedoms that others cannot. One would think that there are schools that would employ a gay person, without any concerns. With a knowledge of a church’s standing on the gay issue an applicant can avoid many difficulties by simply respecting an organizations values and steering clear of them.

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Mmerritt

And what pray tell is the LGBT “ agenda” ??
Please explain.

Parents who do not want their children “ exposed “ to the fact that LGBT individuals exist, need to understand that in every Adventist classroom / school / campus,
five percent of the students are already gay / lesbian
—- they were born that way —-
and over time, their heterosexual classmates will ultimately recognize this difference in their friends.

Please also be advised that there is an undisputed demographic — one in twenty on this planet is gay / lesbian. That means that in every extended family of twenty members, there is likely to be a lesbian aunt, a gay uncle, or an LGBT sibling, cousin, niece, nephew, parent, grandparent. This demographic is inescapable, so whether in school, family, congregation, or neighborhood, your child will be exposed or meet gay/ lesbian individuals.

I of course have always advocated that the moment an Adventist child realizes his / her differing sexual orientation, they should immediately remove themselves from the hostile, condemning environment that Adventism foists on their LGBT members.

These young people should save themselves tuition money and enroll in the nearest public school / community college / university. They will thereby maintain their self worth, self esteem and dignity — all elements so crucial to becoming a stable mature adult.

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Again, I never disputed the existence of LGBT individuals or students. These are great ideas that parents should consider, but they are not arguments for denying parents the right to choose not to have their children exposed to these issues.

Side note, it’s interesting that you cite public schools as non-hostile, open, caring institutions. One out of every 5 children in American schools report being bullied. Check out this link for statistics about how LGBTQ students report even higher numbers of bullying. https://www.stopbullying.gov/bullying

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I’d be glad to explain the term, “LGBTQ agenda”. LGBTQ is an abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning persons. The term “agenda” means the underlying intentions or motives of a particular person or group. In this instance, this gay individual had an agenda to promote gay adoption in his community.
I cannot answer your second question for two reasons. First, I never used the term “protect”. And second, I don’t know why parents would not want to expose their children to LGBTQ people, but I respect that decision anyway. In other words, I don’t need to understand or agree with everyone’s parenting decisions to respect those decisions and their right to make decisions regarding their own children.

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When I came out I asked a church member who told me should have kept it to myself, “So you want me to break the 9th commandment and continue to lie about myself.?”

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