The Magazine


Sep 15, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 01 • By MARK TOOLEY
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WATCH FOR SAME-SEX MARRIAGE to become the latest rage at America's university chapels. Recently Harvard's chaplain, himself a homosexual, announced that his chapel will extend its "hospitality" to male-male and female-female couples. The chapel at Stanford has hosted two same-sex ceremonies in the last two years.

Nor will the trend be limited to liberal campuses in the Northeast and on the West Coast. Already, in the heart of the Bible belt, Emory University in Atlanta is embroiled in controversy over same-sex celebrations.

Like many other universities, Emory has an advocacy office for " Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual Life," extends benefits to employees' same-sex companions, and hosts conferences like the recent "Queering the South." But the issue of same-sex nuptials arose only this May, after two men arranged to be married in the chapel at the Oxford, Georgia, campus. When a dean canceled the ceremony, Emory president William Chace quickly overruled him and telephoned the couple to apologize personally, lest the university be seen to violate its policy of nondiscrimination.

Like many American universities, Emory has a church affiliation, by virtue of a dusty charter in the school's archive. Chace and his academic colleagues must have been shocked when, in June, the North Georgia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church reminded the school of this affiliation and of the church's disapproval of homosexual practices. North Georgia bishop G. Lindsey Davis informed Emory's board of trustees that the school was founded by and is still "owned" by the church. The denomination pours over $ 1.4 million into Emory every year, most of it into the school of theology.

Trustee Sam Nunn, the former U.S. senator who is both a Methodist and an Emory graduate, told the board that same-sex marriage is illegal in Georgia. Consequently the trustees banned all weddings, both heterosexual and homosexual, at Emory until they reach a formal resolution at their meeting this fall. The trustees include not only four Methodist bishops, but also corporate titans such as the chairman of Coca-Cola and the president of Home Depot, Inc.

Ultimately, it appears likely that same-sex ceremonies will be prohibited in Emory's chapels. But some Methodists fear that homosexuality will be further legitimized elsewhere on campus. The church has criticized the school's granting of employee benefits to same-sex domestic partners but has not directly challenged it.

Like most American universities, Emory has strayed far from its origins. The university was created to foster the scholarly search for truth, whose foundation was understood to be the Scriptures. Religious faith is now treated at Emory at best as merely another lifestyle; at worst, as an antique vestige of an oppressive past. Few students and faculty had reason to ponder Emory's church connection until the same-sexmarriage flap.

In a letter defending his school's benefits for samesex couples two years ago, Chace voiced the rudderless thinking of academe. As he saw it, the university's role is to "inform" the church about the "expanding boundaries of truth." He insisted that "God's righteousness does push us towards a more complete realization of mercy and justice together." Same-sex couples, he claimed, can show a "commitment" equal to "matrimony" and therefore are " entitled" to the same benefits as husbands and wives. Anything less, he warned, is "discrimination."

In seeking to sponsor and subsidize same-sex unions, Emory and other universities are not just endorsing "liberated" sexual conduct. They are denying the fixed ethical standards upon which the great schools of Western civilization were established. Emory's president wants to "expand" truth's boundaries. But actually he is echoing Pontius Pilate's cynical question of Jesus: "What is truth?"

Chace likens the homosexual cause to the civilrights movement. But the champions of racial equality premised their arguments upon teachings from the Bible. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. did not parrot the popular culture. Employing the noblest religious traditions of the West, they fought to redeem it. University presidents could profit from their example.

Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist Committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.