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WENHAM, Mass. – D. Michael Lindsay thought he was on safe political ground when he signed the letter.
President Barack Obama was about to expand job protection for gays employed by federal contractors. Under the proposed changes, faith-based charities with federal grants worried they could lose the right to hire and fire according to their religious beliefs. Religious leaders flooded the White House with pleas to maintain or broaden the exemption.
Among them was one endorsed by Lindsay, president of Gordon College, a small evangelical school, and 13 evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders.
In the end, Obama left the existing exemption in place. But it was no victory for Lindsay.
His stand last July came at a cost — to him and the school — that he never anticipated: broken relationships with nearby cities, the loss of a key backer for a federal grant, a review by the regional college accrediting agency, and campus protest and alumni pushback over whether the school should maintain its ban on "homosexual practice" as part of its life and conduct standards.
"I signed the letter as a way of trying to show my personal support," Lindsay said during an interview at the Wenham campus, about 25 miles north of Boston. "Obviously, if I had known the response that in particular Gordon College would receive, I wouldn't sign."
Lindsay had learned the hard way just how much gay rights had been dividing members of his own community and driving a wedge between his school and local communities.
Gordon is among the many conservative religious institutions struggling to find their place in a landscape rapidly changing in favor of gay rights. Their view of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is being challenged not only from outside, but also from within their own faith communities, and once-comfortable partnerships with public organizations are being re-evaluated according to new terms.
After coming under fire for its ban on hiring faculty in same-sex relationships, Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia decided this year to delay a decision on whether to uphold the policy, which means it won't be enforced for now. World Vision, a Christian international relief agency based in Washington State, said last March it would hire employees in gay marriages, but quickly backtracked after drawing condemnation from evangelical leaders and losing thousands of donors. At several evangelical colleges, students have formed advocacy groups for gay acceptance, such as OneWheaton, at Wheaton College in Illinois.
Lindsay's support for an exemption from a civil right for gays unleashed long-simmering campus tensions over the school's assertion that it has created a safe place for lesbian and gay students, while maintaining a conduct policy that singles them out. The school bars sex outside of marriage for everyone in the Gordon community, while also specifically banning "homosexual practice." OneGordon, a group for gay students, alumni and their allies, is now pressing the college to eliminate the language.
"There should be the same sexual ethic for LGBT and heterosexual students," said Paul O. Miller, an alumnus and co-founder of OneGordon.
The uproar over Lindsay's letter also prompted local community leaders to take another look at Gordon's policies. The college hires gays and lesbians, but because of the ban on "homosexual practice," effectively requires them to be celibate. Mayor Kim Driscoll of Salem responded by ending Gordon's contract to manage the city's Old Town Hall. Salem's Peabody Essex Museum ended its academic relationship with the school and withdrew support for Gordon's grant application to the National Endowment for the Humanities. The New England Association of Schools & Colleges started a review of the controversy.
Some community leaders said they didn't know before that Gordon was an evangelical institution, or didn't fully understand what that meant.
"I had no idea that Gordon was even a Christian school," said Rick Starbard, a Lynn public school teacher for 14 years and a School Committee member for five. The committee voted 4-3 in late August to end its 11-year partnership between Gordon and Lynn public schools over Lindsay's position. Thousands of Gordon volunteers had taught English to refugees, installed art in public elementary schools, distributed toys and gift cards at Christmas and helped students with their homework. Gordon had an office downtown, with a director who joined the boards of several local service agencies.
"Anybody can have the personal beliefs that they want, but it does become different when you play in a public school," said Starbard, who nonetheless voted to keep the partnership with Gordon. "I think there was a knee-jerk reaction to this and people didn't think out the long-term implications."
Tucked into a forested corner of a small town, Gordon is known for staying out of public fights on divisive social issues. When the Massachusetts Supreme Court recognized same-sex marriage in 2003, making the state the first in the country to do so, then-Gordon president Judson Carlberg issued no public statement.
Among its peers in Christian higher education, Gordon sits on the liberal end of the spectrum. The college upholds the Bible as the authoritative word of God while providing the "freedom to offer constructive criticism of this tradition." Evolution is taught in the science program. Draped nude models are used for art students learning to draw the body — unusual in Christian art programs. An alcohol ban is only for campus and school events, instead of the blanket prohibition sometimes found at other evangelical schools. The 1,700 or so undergraduates are encouraged to respect different views of what it means to be Christian.
"Unity does not mean sameness," Gordon professor Sharon Ketcham told students at a chapel service this semester. "No one here is asking you to be the same."
Yet, the school is grounded in conservative Christian beliefs. At the campus entrance, on a sign between two granite pillars, the school spells out its mission to instill "Christian character" in students.
"I'm OK in civil society for there to be civil unions, insurance rights, domestic partnerships, all those kinds of things," Lindsay said. "But the difference here I think we need to pay attention to — this is a religious institution that presumably might be asked to betray one of its core convictions."
Lindsay said he has received several offers from legal groups who want to represent Gordon in lawsuits that would allege the broken partnerships amounted to unconstitutional retaliation for free speech. He insists he will not take that path. Instead, he has been working to ease the controversy.
He has met with faculty and staff and with gay students and alumni. He spoke to a teachers' union in nearby Georgetown, which agreed to continue to host Gordon student-teachers, and sent letters to superintendents of other public schools where Gordon students trained.
When the fall semester began, Lindsay went to the dorms over two nights to answer questions from undergraduates. Gordon has formed a working group including trustees, students, administrators and faculty to address some of the concerns raised about the challenges for gay students on campus. The group, which includes a gay student and some faculty who oppose the current life and conduct statement, will meet through February.
Lindsay, meanwhile, said he wouldn't be taking public stands in the future on any politically charged issues.
"He made a mistake in signing it," said James Trent, a sociologist and Gordon professor for 11 years who supports eliminating the ban on "homosexual practice." ''The middle ground begins to wear when you're oppressing people. How do you slightly oppress someone?"