Fallout on LGBTQ spouses at Calvin University captures wider evangelical divide

t (RNS) – For years, Calvin University, a leading evangelical school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has tried to toe the fine line of welcoming LGBTQ students while enforcing traditional views of the Reformed Christian Church on Sexuality.

The school sponsors a support group for gay students, presented an award to an LGBTQ graduate, and last year a gay undergraduate was elected student body president.

But after a Calvin professor performed a wedding last fall for an LGBTQ staff member at a campus-based research facility, putting both employees in violation of school policy, chiefs establishment tried to solve the problem discreetly. The Center for Social Research, which has been part of the school since the 1970s, was allowed to separate and the staff member was allowed to stay.

Things changed last week when Chimes, Calvin’s student newspaper, announced the reason for the split. Chimes then interviewed Nicole Sweda, the Calvin employee whose marriage caused CRS to leave Calvin.

“I won’t be ashamed of being queer,” Sweda, who eventually quit her job to speak openly about her marriage, said in the Chimes interview. “I will not be ashamed to be married to Annica.”

The events reveal the dilemma faced by many Christian schools, which wish to welcome a wide range of students to their campuses while affirming their belief that marriage is for one man and one woman and that sex outside marriage is a sin. .

Finding that balance has become increasingly difficult in recent years as more and more young Americans, including students in Christian schools, identify as LGBTQ – a recent Gallup survey found that an American out of five born between 1997 and 2003 say they are LGBT. Most young Americans also view LGBT inclusion as non-negotiable, which puts them at odds with older conservative Christian leaders and evangelical institutions.

“I want Calvin to be honest,” Sweda said. “If they are going to cut ties with staff members, faculty and a whole center over this, then just say so. And stop promoting things that make Calvin more welcoming.

When Sweda and Annica Steen decided to wed in the fall of 2021, they knew their wedding day would be bittersweet: Amidst the celebration, there would be the pain of rejection by disapproving friends and family. their relationship for theological reasons. The couple wanted to find someone to officiate who could capture the range of emotions they were feeling. Because the wedding would be a civil ceremony, the couple was not looking for a member of the clergy, but always someone they looked up to.

“Right away, Joe came to mind,” Sweda said, referring to Joseph Kuilema, assistant professor of sociology and social work at Calvin, who had been a friend and mentor to Sweda.

On October 15, Kuilema stood with the couple in front of a gathering of family and friends and declared them legally married.

Things started to go downhill in January when Sweda was called to a meeting at the provost’s office, where, according to Chimes, Sweda learned that her marriage violated college policy and that she could no longer stay at Calvin. .

She told Chimes, “If they had fired me that day, I would have liked it.” Sweda told Religion News Service that her co-workers and supervisors were aware of the marriage.

But instead of firing Sweda, the school told her it was working on an alternative solution: creating the Center for Social Research, which is largely self-sufficient. In February, the center, which does surveys and other research projects for nonprofits, businesses and churches, announced plans to become independent by the end of April 2022.

Neil Carlson, director of CRS, told Chimes the split between the school and the center was amicable. “We always want to stay in social and economic proximity with the community; it’s not a bad breakup, it’s more of a ‘let’s just be friends,'” he said in February.

Carlson declined to speak to RNS, directing press inquiries to a Calvin spokesperson. This spokesperson declined to discuss personnel matters.

Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Photo by Andy Calvert, courtesy of Calvin University

Provost Noah Toly confirmed that all faculty and staff, including those at the center, are required to follow the school’s employment policies, which prohibit sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman. woman. He also said hiring managers and supervisors are required to enforce the policy.

Despite the accommodation, Sweda decided to quit her job in March because, she told RNS, she would otherwise have to keep quiet about her marriage until CSR’s departure from Calvin was complete – which is what she didn’t want to do.

RELATED: Most Evangelical Students Appreciate LGBT People Even If Administrators Don’t

Meanwhile, Chimes reported that Kuilema’s contract renewal may have been delayed due to her involvement in the wedding, and her future at Calvin may be in jeopardy.

Although he has taught at Calvin since 2008, Kuilema, who declined an interview request, was denied tenure by the school board in 2018.

Calvin’s policy is unlikely to change. At this year’s denominational annual synod, the Christian Reformed Church is expected to approve a report from its committee charged with articulating a foundational biblical theology of human sexuality that affirms the church’s traditional beliefs.

A report approved in 2016 bars pastors and church leaders from officiating marriages of same-sex couples. This report allows church members to take part in such marriages as long as they realize that such marriages are sinful.

“Calvin is an institution of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, and our positions and policies are intended to follow its doctrines,” Toly said. “We don’t follow church doctrines because we have to,” he added. “We follow church doctrines because we believe it is the right thing to do.”

Toly also confirmed that Calvin employees, gay and straight, left the school for violating school policies. When an employee violates the policy, the school would prefer to get that employee to comply with the policy, but that’s not always easy or possible, he said.

“Joining a community or institution almost always means inheriting positions and abiding by rules set by others, even if we don’t agree with all the rules, wouldn’t make those rules ourselves, or don’t want to not change the rule,” he said. “This need to live in a doctrinal framework and a set of rules that we don’t is reinforced in a faith-based institution. Colleges and universities aren’t the only places where this is happening, but they are great places for students to face this reality.

RELATED: Calvin University’s first openly gay student body president leads the way

Alyssa N. Rockenbach, a professor of higher education at North Carolina State University, said that as acceptance of LGBT people continues to grow among evangelical students, leaders of evangelical schools will be challenged. to more headaches.

“They will continue to be out of sync with their students the longer they persist in enforcing policies and practices that dehumanize the LGBTQ+ community,” Rockenbach said in an email. “My greatest concern is for LGBTQ+ students, staff, and faculty who may be harmed in religious environments that are unwelcoming and unprepared to help them thrive.”

Josh Packard, executive director of Springtide Research (and a frequent opinion contributor to the RNS), said religious institutions often focus on defending their policies and beliefs and forget to listen to their students. These students don’t always need religious leaders to agree with them, but they want to be heard and not ignored.

“One thing that’s universal is that no one likes to feel rejected or like they’re not understood,” he said.

Packard also said that university leaders can no longer rely on their institutional authority to ensure that students or staff will follow policies. Increasingly, he said, leaders have to convince people to follow policies because it’s the right thing to do.

Any Calvin students or alumni who disagree with the school do not want to sever ties. Ryan Struyk, a Calvin graduate and journalist who won the school’s 2021 Young Graduate Award, says the school’s mission still inspires him. Although he disagrees with the school’s beliefs about sexuality, he taught a journalism class as an adjunct teacher last spring.

“I taught my course with a strong and sincere Reformed Christian perspective, although I also came to a different conclusion than the university did on how God calls me to live in this specific area,” said he declared. “I believe that many LGBTQ Christians like me have much to offer Calvin and his students. We should be able to do that. Calvin’s mission still inspires me today, and my deep desire is to live my place in that mission, no matter who I marry.

Kelsey Coburn, former coordinator of student support and sexuality programs at Calvin, said tensions between the university’s policies on sexuality and the reality of student life made it difficult for staff to support LGBT students. .

While at Calvin, Coburn oversaw the sexuality and gender awareness support group for LGBT students. She felt pressured to support school policies, which she felt limited her ability to care for students.

“Calvin wants to show that they are more than happy to have conversations across ideological divides, but the reality is the CRC is not assertive,” she said.

Sweda said she could return to the center once he becomes independent or find another job. Until then, Sweda and his wife plan to enjoy their first year of marital bliss.

“I don’t think we expected this in our first year of marriage,” she said. “This incident will not cloud the celebration of our wedding and our marriage.”

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Barry F. Howard