(RNS) — Whitworth University, a Christian school affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has revised its policies to allow for the hiring of LGBTQ faculty and to add sexual orientation to its non-discrimination statement.
In so doing, it joins a sliver of Christian colleges and universities that have bucked a largely sturdy resistance to hiring married gay faculty. Last year, Eastern University, a Christian school affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA, made a similar change to its hiring policy.
Whitworth, which is located in Spokane, Washington, and last academic year had an enrollment of 2,500 students, announced the change on Thursday (June 29), following a year-long study. The school requires faculty to be Christian, but has hired non-evangelicals and Catholics, too.
“After careful consideration of this broad input, the board voted yesterday to resolutely uphold the Christ-centered commitments required of Whitworth staff and faculty; safeguard the campus environment to allow for civil discourse on topics about which faithful Christians disagree, including God’s design for sexual expression; and add “sexual orientation” to the university’s list of protected classes, which already includes color, gender, ethnicity, social or economic class, and nationality,” the statement from Whitworth President Scott McQuilkin and Board Chair Brian Kirkpatrick said.
The vast majority of Christian schools have excluded LGBTQ faculty even as some — mostly Catholic and mainline Protestant schools —have added “sexual orientation” in their nondiscrimination statements for students.
A retired Whitworth University political science professor who came out as a lesbian in a New Yorker profile last year may have played a behind-the-scenes role in the university’s move, though she was not directly involved in any of the discussions.
Kathryn Lee confided in former Whitworth President Beck Taylor about her sexual orientation in 2017. She said there were two or three other faculty at the school who were also queer but afraid to reveal their orientation.
“This was a surprise,” Lee said. “I felt, I hoped, that there had been some movement, but I really didn’t want to bank on my hopes too much.”
Lee, who was a faculty member at Whitworth from 1984 to 1990 and again from 2011 to 2022, heard about the change in the policy Thursday in a text from several former students. She applauded the school for its action.
Whitworth’s president and faculty declined to answer questions about the policy change.
The school is a “collaborative partner” with the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, the largest association of Christian schools. The CCCU requires member schools to uphold traditional Christian marriage between a man and a woman. Last year, it placed Eastern University on hiatus after it announced that it would allow the hiring of faculty in same-sex marriages and add sexual orientation to its list of protected classes.
Since Whitworth is a partner and not a member, it was not clear if it would be allowed to continue its partnership with the CCCU. The CCCU did not respond to reporter’s inquiries.
In 2015, two Mennonite schools in the CCCU, Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College, amended their policies to allow the hiring of LGBTQ faculty and voluntarily gave up their membership in the CCCU.
Though associated with the mainline Presbyterian Church, which welcomes LGBTQ people to serve in leadership positions as ministers, deacons and elders, the majority of Whitworth students are not Presbyterian. The school defines its Christian identity as, “Reformed, evangelical, ecumenical, global, missional and Presbyterian.”
Another Christian school in Washington state has been embroiled in a high-stakes clash between students, faculty and the school’s board of trustees over LGBTQ hiring. Students and faculty at Seattle Pacific University, a 131-year-old school affiliated with the Free Methodist Church, sued the school after it refused to scrap an employment policy barring people in same-sex relationships from full-time jobs. In April, a Washington State Superior Court judge rejected all but one of their claims.
Last month, Seattle Pacific announced it was cutting its budget for academic programs by 40% — mostly through steep faculty layoffs, effective in a year.
Battles over LGBTQ policies continue at other Christian schools. A former Calvin University professor who lost his job after performing a wedding for a transgender former student has sued the Christian Reformed school for retaliation and discrimination. That suit is ongoing.
Whitworth’s Pride Club celebrated the policy change on its Instagram account Thursday.
A message posted by a club member read: “This is a huge step in the right direction and I think it is an amazing way to end Pride Month.”