Massachusetts case highlights religion’s historical role in higher education

Written by William C. Duncan

March 24, 2021

Gordon College is a flagship Christian liberal arts college in Massachusetts. It was founded in 1889 as the Boston Missionary Training School. It is serious both about academics and faith. As the “faith” section of its website explains:

Gordon is a vibrant community of believers, a place where Christian faith frames all aspects of the experience—from residence life to athletics to academics. We want students to think deeply and holistically about how their faith informs their influence in society—now and well into the future. Intentional programming and organic relationships propel students to grow in Christian character and deepen their trust in Jesus.

The college’s inclusive understanding of faith and scholarship was recently at issue in a case decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, that state’s highest court.

The case was brought by a professor who claimed she was fired by the college for her opposition to the school’s policies on sexual morality, an outgrowth of its religious commitments. The college responded that the courts did not have jurisdiction to assess the personnel decision, relying on the “ministerial exception,” which prevents courts from intervening in employment disputes between religious organizations and employees who perform religious functions.

This legal concept was recently applied by the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent court interference with a parochial school decision to fire an employee who taught religion and participated in religious activities with students.

In the Gordon College case, however, Massachusetts’ high court distinguished that case, saying the fired professor did not teach religion or perform religious functions and so the employment dispute was not covered by the ministerial exception.

The court specifically rejected Gordon’s vision of “integrat[ing] religious faith into instruction and scholarship” consistent with its aspiration that “Christian faith frames all aspects” of the college experience, including academics. This understanding that all of its faculty had a role in promulgating the religious mission of the school would be too broad, the court concluded. So, in the absence of evidence that this particular professor conducted religious activities or taught religious subjects, the court said she could continue her lawsuit.

In addition to the important religious freedom issue the case raises, it also highlights an important contribution that religious organizations have made to American life. In short, college students and college graduates in America today have religion to thank in no small part for the higher education that is setting them up (or has already set them up) for financial and life success and happiness.

Historically, the nation’s three earliest universities – and some of today’s leading institutions of higher education – embraced a religious mission. Half of Harvard’s initial governing board were ministers. Roger Geiger’s history of higher education in the United States notes that the “college was intended to uphold orthodox Puritanism.” Yale was formed partly by those who believed Harvard had failed in this religious aspiration and that another school should perform that function. The charter of the College of William and Mary included provision for “a school of divinity to prepare Anglican ministers.” All were initially governed by both church and state (which were not strictly separated at that time).

A Notre Dame professor noted: “The churches sponsored higher education before there were any state-sponsored colleges or universities; indeed, before there were states. For most of the history of the nation those Christian foundations set the patterns and carried most, then much, of the enrollment.” He specified:

Legion are the universities and colleges in the United States founded under the auspices of the churches. Princeton, Calvin, Hanover, Tulsa, and Macalaster were founded as Presbyterian or Reformed. Brown, Baylor, Wake Forest, Spelman, and Vassar were Baptist. Haverford, Swarthmore, Earlham, Whittier, and Guilford were Quaker. Williams, Yale, Smith, Fisk, and Dartmouth were Congregationalist. Valparaiso, Saint Olaf, Luther, Hartwick, and Wittenberg were Lutheran. Duke, Emory, Northwestern, Southern California, and Syracuse were Methodist. Georgetown, Webster, Notre Dame, Manhattanville, and De Paul were Catholic. The University of the South (Sewanee), Hobart, Bard, William and Mary, and Kenyon were Episcopalian.

Of course, most of these universities have now become secular and abandoned any formal or informal religious mission, but it remains the case that the foundation of American higher education was religious.

With a nod to the historic shift away from religious missions in the Ivy League schools, the Gordon College website notes: “Gordon stands apart from other outstanding institutions in New England by combining an exceptional education with an informed Christian faith.” Though these other institutions have drifted away from the project of integrating faith with scholarship, Gordon self-consciously embraces pluralism in which different visions of learning can coexist in different institutions.

Gordon’s embrace of pluralism is now in tension with strong cultural pressures in higher education towards uniformity and conformity with a strict and often inflexibly applied set of progressive values. This is reflected in internal disagreements about its religiously motivated conduct standards that gave rise to the recent court decision. It is also reflected in the court’s decision that the college’s vision of integrating faith into all aspects of the school had to give way to state antidiscrimination policies.

The U.S. Supreme Court will likely be asked to address this latter source of tension by clarifying the contours of the ministerial exception. It could do so by charting a path of inclusivity and tolerance: recognizing that diversity of visions embodied in different institutions is an important manifestation of pluralism that is inherently valuable. Indeed, it is what gave rise to some of the nation’s (and the world’s) premier institutions of higher learning.

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