By: Lauren Walleser/TRT Assistant Editor—
SALEM, Mass.—In early July, Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll wrote a letter to Gordon College President D. Michael Lindsay terminating a management contract the City held with the College for Old Town Hall. Although the City and Gordon College had already planned to terminate the contract, Driscoll opted to end it early July 15 as a response to Lindsay’s signing of a letter to President Obama supporting an exemption from federal regulations barring employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity for religious institutions, as well as Gordon’s current policies for behavior with regards to LGBT individuals.
“Salem adopted a non-discrimination ordinance earlier this year, which made us just the fifth community in Massachusetts to have such a local law,” said Driscoll. “Gordon’s behavioral policies and their president’s advocacy for the ability to discriminate against LGBT individuals violated both the spirit and letter of that law. In Salem, perhaps more so than most other cities, we have an especially unique understanding of the negative outcomes that can follow from any group of people being singled out for discrimination or stigmatization. Our values are shaped by our history and it is a legacy that really impels us to stand up and take positive action.”
As a result of the letter to Lindsay going viral on the Internet, Driscoll’s office was reportedly flooded with phone calls regarding the decision, both positive and negative.
“It’s been overwhelmingly positive and heartwarming, not just from LGBT residents, but also from allies,” Driscoll said. “Overall, the calls have been running probably two or three to one in support of our actions, and from Salem constituents the rate is even more supportive. Salem is an inclusive and welcoming community, comprised of people from an incredible diversity of ethnicities, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, religious beliefs, and more. I believe that we are stronger for that diversity and that it lends a special vibrancy to our City. I’m really proud to be Mayor of such a livable city.”
However, in response to the negative feedback from conservative, right-wing callers—some of whom were prompted by commentator Glenn Beck—Driscoll wrote another letter, this time to Steve Harrington, the interim executive director of the North Shore Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth (nAGLY). In it, she vowed to donate $5 to nAGLY for each call she received in protest of the City’s termination of the contract with Gordon College, and encouraged others to donate as well.
“Quite frankly, it was a way to deal with the negative callers in a way that offered a positive outcome—kind of like the silver lining on a dark cloud,” said Driscoll. “Since the ‘people’s pledge’ agreements were happening in many statewide political races, it became our very own ‘people’s pledge’ with an aim of incentivizing support for a good organization out of some fairly hateful comments. It turned out to be a nice way to turn hate on its head and to transform it into a call for positive action. The decision to make a donation to nAGLY was driven by the fact that it is a Salem based organization that provides support and advocacy for LGBT teens in Salem and the North Shore region. It wasn’t about trying to irritate critics by connecting their often vitriolic calls into donations for a pro-LGBT group, but a way of galvanizing a larger effort to grow something good out of something negative.”
Driscoll noted that her donation was only $805, but that donations across the globe have now generated over several thousand dollars for the small Massachusetts organization.
“In Salem we deliberately choose not to lock our history away in a closet. We shine a light on it and have worked hard to transform what was a tragedy into a reason to celebrate human rights and call for social justice,” Driscoll spoke of the ways in which Salem has developed in its response to human rights issues. “In Salem, equal rights and social justice are not just slogans. They are the values that inspire us to tangible, meaningful action, and they are deeply and directly connected to our history.”
When asked whether she had received any response from Gordon College, Driscoll said that outside of the formal conversations around terminating the contract, they have not had communication with the College.
“We have, however, heard overwhelmingly positive responses from Gordon faculty, students, and alumni in support of the decision,” she said. “These individuals have expressed disappointment in President Lindsay’s statements and many have even chipped in their own donations to nAGLY. We’ve also had very positive conversations with the folks who run _Cry Innocent_ and the Salem Museum, the two Gordon College affiliated programs at Old Town Hall. Both groups will be separating themselves from Gordon College, establishing their own independent nonprofits, and signing new contracts with the City, which will include non-discrimination clauses.”
Gordon College told The Rainbow Times that they are not scheduling interviews with any media at this time, but directed us to a page on their website—www.gordon.edu/learnthefacts—which contains information they said could be used as response from the institution.
The letter to President Obama—signed by Lindsay and 14 others from various organizations—asked the president to include a religious exemption in his planned executive order that would require federal contractors to not discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The letter stated that “We have great appreciation for your commitment to human dignity and justice, and we share those values with you. With respect to the proposed executive order, we agree that banning discrimination is a good thing,” but that “Even so, it still may not be possible for all sides to reach a consensus on every issue.”
The exemption the group asked for was compared to what was included in the Senate version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
“Without a robust religious exemption, like the provisions in the Senate-passed ENDA, this expansion of hiring rights will come at an unreasonable cost to the common good, national unity and religious freedom,” the letter stated.
Beyond the argument that religious organizations would lose financial funding, the letter also proclaimed “While the nation has undergone incredible social and legal change over the last decade, we still live in a nation with different beliefs about sexuality. We must find a way to respect diversity of opinion on this issue in a way that respects the dignity of all parties to the best of our ability. There is no perfect solution that will make all parties completely happy.”
It also recalled President Obama’s former stance on marriage before he eventually said his beliefs shifted and he now supports marriage equality. The group wrote: “You justified withholding your support for same-sex marriage, at least in part, by appealing to your Christian faith. Yet you still believed you could serve your country, all Americans, as President. Similarly, some faith-based organizations’ religious identity requires that their employees share that identity. We still believe those organizations can serve their country, all Americans, in partnership with their government and as welcome members of the American family.”
On their FAQ page, it states that Lindsay was not trying to make a political statement by signing the letter, and is “truly surprised and saddened by the controversy it has created.” It states that his responsibility is “to conscientiously safeguard the distinctive characteristics that have defined Gordon College since the institution was founded in 1889. Infringement on religious liberty could affect the school’s ability to hire for mission in the future, as well as the rights of faith-based institutions to establish a set of standards and expectations for their community.”
The letter did not reflect a change in Gordon’s undergraduate admissions or employment policies, but rather reflected their insistence on upholding the standard and expectations they set forth for members of their community in their Statement on Life and Conduct. While stating that Gordon College “does not discriminate in hiring based on a person’s sexual orientation,” they also require individuals who work or study at Gordon to “affirm their support for the College’s Statement of Faith and agree to abide by the Statement on Life and Conduct.”
In “An Explanation of Gordon College’s Policy on Homosexuality,” the College notes that the statement of faith and conduct “does not reference same-sex orientation—that is, the state of being a person who experiences same-sex attraction—but rather, specifically, homosexual acts. The Gordon community is expected to refrain from any sexual intercourse—heterosexual or homosexual; premarital or extramarital—outside of the marriage covenant. There is currently much debate among Christians about the nature and causes of homosexuality, and about a faithful Christian response to same-sex attractions, but we acknowledge that we are all sinners in need of grace, all called to redeemed humanity in Christ.”
They also note that they “recognize that students at Gordon who identify as LGBTQ or experience same-sex attraction have often felt marginalized and alone, and recognize the pressing need for a safe campus environment for all students.”
According to their FAQ page, there will be opportunities to discuss the issue on campus in the fall, including a dedicated portion of the Board of Trustees meeting time “to explore further how Gordon can address some of the complexities surrounding the intersection of individual rights and community expectations.”
Following the signing of the letter by Lindsay and the media attention that followed, questions were raised as to whether or not the situation would affect the College’s accreditation review. However, in a letter to Lindsay from Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Inc. Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, Brittingham clarified that “there is no chance that an action withdrawing Gordon College’s accreditation or placing the institution on probation would be taken at the Commission’s September meeting.”
Lindsay also penned a letter to the Gordon Community, in which he states “In general practice, Gordon tries to stay out of politically charged issues, and I sincerely regret that the intent of this letter has been misconstrued, and that Gordon has been put into the spotlight in this way.”
Mayor Driscoll shared how she thought the national attention on the issue between Salem and Gordon might affect LGBT policies and attitudes nationwide.
“I hope it will open people’s eyes, whether they are straight or gay, to the fact that they most likely have an organization like nAGLY in their area, and the work that they do there is important to the well-being of those kids and, by extension, the character of their own community,” she said. “Second, I hope it will encourage other communities to adopt non-discrimination ordinances or bylaws. I was heartened by the President’s decision to require that all federal contractors abide by the foundational principle of equal protection under the law, but on the local level we can take our own pro-active steps to codify those protections more completely. When it comes especially to our public buildings, public contracts, and public governments—funded by tax dollars collected from residents of every gender identity and sexual orientation, incidentally—we should be particularly vigilant to ensure no segment of our population is excluded, denied access, or treated differently than any other segment.”
Going forward, her hopes for the LGBT community also expanded beyond Salem.
“I’d love for our nation to arrive at a point, some day, when we look back at these debates and disagreements and see them in the same light that we, today, look back at how we overcame laws banning interracial marriage, or even racial segregation,” said Driscoll. “My hope is for a society that embraces everyone no matter who they are, who they love, or how they self-identify. I’d like to hope that’s not an unreasonable vision and it’s one that could be shared by everyone, regardless of political party or ideology. I know my kids are growing up in a city and a Commonwealth that values all, regardless of color, gender, and sexual preferences and that is something that makes me hopeful for the future.”
Meanwhile, President Obama signed the executive order on LGBT job discrimination July 21, without the exemption for religious groups.
For more information on the City of Salem, including the full letter to Lindsay and the text of the City’s non-discrimination ordinance, visit their website . For more on Gordon College, visit www.gordon.edu.