This SoCal Christian College Supported Gay Relationships. Then It Abruptly Changed Its Mind.
For years, LGBTQ students at the evangelical Christian Azusa Pacific University had to hide their sexual orientation. But when classes started in late August, they no longer had to.
After months of negotiations with LGBTQ student leaders the previous academic year, administrators eliminated section 9.0 of the student conduct code, which read: "Students may not engage in a romanticized same-sex relationship."
The administration's second major change was to allow Haven -- the long-standing LGBTQ unofficial student organization which had met off-campus -- to meet on campus and advertise its meetings.
Gay and lesbian students were in shock.
"I was amazed," said Courtney Fredericks, an Azusa Pacific junior studying psychology. "We talked about it happening but we didn't think it actually would. It was incredible, we were finally in equal standing on this campus."
The university also revised its official statement on human sexuality.
It deleted the line: "Heterosexuality is God's design for sexually intimate relationships."
A paragraph that cited scripture as expressly forbidding "homosexual acts" was removed.
The school took out language saying it's "a sin" to deviate from the "biblical standard" of sexuality.
The new phrasing declares that such deviation is "an opportunity for repentance, grace, and redemption."
THE LOSS OF 'GOD FIRST'?
It didn't take long for people inside and outside the university to say the changes went too far and question whether Azusa Pacific remained an evangelical Christian institution.
"More and more, it seems clear that various spirits of the age are being raised up at APU, such that the God of traditional Biblical understanding, and what He asks of us, is being redefined," wrote Azusa Pacific Professor Barbara Harrington in a Sept. 24 letter to the university's board of trustees.
"The loss of 'God First' means APU stops progressing and loses itself and its defining character in a wave of change," she wrote. "It becomes a university indistinguishable from so many others who are sinking in the 'messy middle' of post-modern confusion," she added.
The American Conservative, a Washington D.C.-based publication quoted Harrington's letter in an article and echoed her concerns.
A leader of one of the nation's most conservative evangelical Christian denominations stepped into the fray to turn up the heat on Azusa Pacific.
"What you have is a process that can only end one way or another, either sooner or later, in an abandonment of a Biblical sexual morality or understanding of gender," said Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in his Sept. 25 podcast.
Mohler and others said that allowing gay romance would lead to allowing gay marriage, which is anathema to most evangelical Christians.
Last Friday, Azusa Pacific's board of trustees decided to undo the changes. In an email sent to university employees, students and alumni, the board reinstated the ban on gay romance and affirmed that it was a Bible-centered evangelical Christian institution that believed marriage should be between a man and a woman.
"I was disappointed, devastated," said Fredericks.
Wondering what to do about the board's action, Fredericks and other LGBTQ students gathered on the main steps of Azusa Pacific University on Monday morning.
"Students came out in their pride gear, rainbows and everything, and they lined up here and they linked arms and they prayed for the university for 20 minutes," she said.
Students filled the steps with messages in multi-colored chalk: "you are seen," "Yes, we are radical, so was Jesus." Fredericks wrote on a Post It, "Queer, Christian, and Proud."
"We are Christians, we do believe that we are loved and affirmed by God in our Queer identity, we want people to know that," she said.
'A RAISED FIST AND ANGRY SLOGANS INSTEAD OF AN OPEN HEART'
Azusa Pacific was the first Bible-based college on the West Coast when it was founded by Quakers in 1899. Today it defines itself as "a community of individuals representing diverse Christian backgrounds, yet at its core is an identity built on the Wesleyan Holiness tradition," a strain of evangelical Protestantism. Forbes ranked the university 76th best among West Coast colleges.
The school's motto is "God First." Who God accepts as a member of its family appears to be at the center of contention in the debate over the rights of Azusa Pacific's LGBTQ students.
In her letter to the board, Harrington argued that some of the schools' theology, Biblical studies and other courses are exposing students to "radical beliefs that deride and malign traditional Biblical Christianity."
She went on: "Before long, the students espouse errant ideological trends that leave them isolated from the community, embittered against Christian faith and values, and approaching the world with a raised fist and angry slogans instead of an open heart and saving truth."
LGBTQ student leaders said their demands and the solutions from administrators were arrived at within the context of their Christian beliefs.
Azusa Pacific ethics professor Rob Muthiah went to Monday's protest, although he said he was there more as an observer than as a supporter. Still, he expressed sympathy for the students' position.
"Your sexual identity isn't the marker that determines whether you can be in the family of God or not," he said.
Muthiah said a conversation with a female freshman student during the protest made him think about Christ's teachings to help the most marginalized people in society.
"As we talked, she said her parents sent her to APU because they knew she was identifying as a sexual minority and they thought they wanted to send her here to set her straight," he said. She told Muthiah that when classes started she wasn't interested in being Christian.
"What was so inspiring to me is in the month that she has been here she's been around people who are helping her see, given how she identifies as a sexual minority, how she can hold that with being a Christian," he said.
'WE'RE GOING TO ADD QUITE A BIT OF PRESSURE'
The email sent by Azusa Pacific's board of trustees said the ban on gay student romance would be reinstated because board members hadn't approved it in the first place.
"The process got out in front of the board and some of it was misrepresented to the public as to a significant change in who APU is," board Chairman David Poole told KPCC's AirTalk.
But the university is not turning away from LGBTQ students, he said.
"We continue to look for ways in which we can engage in a meaningful dialogue, including [with] those who are dealing with sexuality issues," said Poole.
Former student and LGBTQ activist Erin Green said there was plenty of dialogue last year, adding that she and current students will try to get the board to reverse itself.
"We're going to add quite a bit of pressure ... on several fronts, through petitioning, possibly through more direct action organizing on campus," she said.
Any protests will be non-violent, said Green, who graduated from Azusa Pacific last spring and is now co-executive director of Brave Commons, a group that advocates for LGBTQ rights at Christian universities.
For the time being, Azusa Pacific's administration is letting stand the other change made this year. The unofficial LGBTQ group Haven continues to meet on campus. Courtney Fredericks said over 100 students attended the group's Oct. 2 meeting.
The board of trustees does have one request of Haven, she said: It has asked it to change its name. While it did not suggest a new name, the board "asked that we call it a ministry rather than an LGBTQ+ pilot program," Fredericks said in a text. She said the members of Haven don't like the idea, but they'll respect the board's wishes, adding that they haven't settled on a new name yet.
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