Why same-sex ruling has SC’s religious-based schools fearing loss of tax exemption

Crowd gathered outside U.S. Supreme Court after June 26 ruling on same-sex marriage.
Crowd gathered outside U.S. Supreme Court after June 26 ruling on same-sex marriage. File photo/AP

In the eyes of Bob Jones Academy, homosexuality is “clearly condemned by God’s Word.”

That statement appears on page 52 of the 2014-15 student handbook as part of a list of offenses – including dishonesty, lewdness, sensual behavior, adultery, sexual perversion, pornography, illegal use of drugs and drunkenness – that could get a student expelled from the private Christian academy in Greenville.

Until June 26, it might not have warranted more scrutiny than any other offense on the list, but the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling to legalize same-sex marriage threw it into the spotlight — for Bob Jones and for thousands of other religious-based educational institutions nationwide that hold similar mandates.

As the ruling approached, and in the weeks since, private schools and colleges have expressed concern the decision would impede on their practice of religious freedom and eventually force them to make a decision on homosexuality: Change their policies or lose their tax-exempt status.

The concern among religious groups stemmed from oral arguments presented in the Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges case, which included a reference to the court’s 1983 decision to strip Bob Jones University of its tax-exempt status for its position, since rescinded, on interracial dating.

In those oral arguments, Justice Samuel Alito asked if the same-sex marriage case could affect tax-exempt status of religious institutions, similar to the Bob Jones decision.

Donald Verrilli, arguing for the same-sex couples on behalf of the Obama administration, said “it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that.”

That statement, and the resulting decision, set off a firestorm of activity among groups concerned with the defense of religious liberty.

Leaders of 74 private religious educational institutions wrote a letter in June to Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Majority Leader John Boehner to express their concern over the potential loss of tax-exempt status.

Steve Pettit, president of Bob Jones University, signed that letter, which said that federal action to remove tax-exempt status from institutions would jeopardize education for millions of Americans and would result in “severe financial distress” for thousands of private schools and colleges.

“No person or entity – whether a church, college, university, school or faith-based charity – should be punished by the government for exercising their constitutional rights of religion, free speech and association as they uphold and defend traditional marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” Randy Page, Bob Jones University spokesman, said in a statement June 26 after the court decision.

Reached this week, Page said while Bob Jones doesn’t hold tax-exempt status, its academy does, and Pettit also speaks for the academy. Efforts to talk with Pettit, who was traveling out of the country last week, were unsuccessful.

The letter was signed by the Association of Christian Schools International, which represents 34 schools in South Carolina, and the South Carolina Association of Christian Schools (SCACS), which represents 71 schools in the state.

Huey Mills is waiting, with some apprehension, for the other shoe to drop.

Mills, president of the SCACS and principal of Carolina Christian Academy in Lancaster, said the ruling created anxiety because institutions “see handwriting on the wall” that they eventually could get sued, and “if you look at precedence, if you get sued, you’re likely going to lose.”

But Mills doesn’t agonize over what he would do if that happens.

“Well I’m not going to change my standards,” he said. “That’s not going to happen.”

Higher education

Policies exist in the student handbooks of numerous Upstate universities and colleges that mark homosexual activity as a disciplinary offense, along with other sexual actions.

At Southern Wesleyan University “engaging in acts of sexual immorality, such as premarital and extramarital relations, homosexual practice and sexual perversions of any form are prohibited.” That is consistent with beliefs of The Wesleyan Church, which owns the university, and the university’s main concern is to stand by that message, said Ed Welch, assistant director of communications at Southern Wesleyan.

I think that we’re concerned, as believers in Jesus Christ, that we could be forced to give approval to something that the Scripture teaches that we cannot.

Tony Beam, vice president for student services at North Greenville University and director of the Christian Worldview Center

At Bob Jones University, “any form of sexual immorality – such as adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bisexual conduct, bestiality, incest, pornography, or any attempt to change one’s biological sex — is sinful and offensive to God.”

Similar policies that list homosexual acts and all sex outside of marriage as subject to expulsion exist at Anderson and North Greenville universities.

Anderson’s policy appears similar in language to Baylor University, another Southern Baptist university, which was criticized this summer for specific references against homosexual acts. Baylor reworded its policy to remove references to all specific sexual acts, regardless of orientation.

Barry Ray, Anderson University spokesman, said the university has gay students and welcomes them, but its policy prohibits all sexual interaction on campus. He said it was written that way because all students live in single housing on campus.

“We don’t single out LGBT students,” Ray said. “All of our students adhere to the same policies.”

“The (gay students) who have identified themselves to us are very happy here,” Ray said. “Our main mission is to be welcome to everybody and our campus environment and our services are available to all people.”

Federal protection

Following the court decision, Republicans in the House and Senate filed the First Amendment Defense Act, which has drawn wide conservative support as a first step to limit the federal government’s ability to take action against individuals or organizations based on their religious or moral beliefs that marriage “is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.”

It’s unclear whether the bill has enough support to pass, though the House version has 145 co-sponsors and the Senate version has 36 co-sponsors.

U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott and U.S. Reps. Jeff Duncan, Trey Gowdy, Mick Mulvaney, Mark Sanford and Joe Wilson have each signed on as sponsors.

Tony Beam, vice president for student services at North Greenville University and director of the Christian Worldview Center, and 29 leaders from religious organizations signed a letter to McConnell and Boehner last week to urge its passage, saying the court’s decision has “shaken millions of people of faith in our nation.”

“I think that we’re concerned, as believers in Jesus Christ, that we could be forced to give approval to something that the Scripture teaches that we cannot,” Beam said.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson and 14 other attorneys general penned a letter to McConnell and Boehner on July 2 voicing their concern that the IRS would deny tax-exempt status to religious organizations.

Earlier this month, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen assured that his agency would not target the tax-exempt status of religious organizations based on their opposition to gay marriage. He re-iterated that in a letter last week to the Oklahoma attorney general.

Koskinen wrote that the IRS doesn’t view the court decision as having changed the law and wouldn’t change its standards to review non-profit organizations.

Though Beam said he’s glad to hear the IRS won’t come after tax exempt status “for now,” he’s still concerned about lawsuits that could test the university’s policies in court.

Religious organizations have begun to re-examine their belief statements and policies to limit exposure and clearly define their mission.

350:Religious-affiliated private schools in state, according to South Carolina Association of Christian Schools

The state Baptist Convention recently posted a document to its website titled “Protecting Your Ministry from Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Lawsuits.”

It provides checklists for churches, schools and ministries to define a statement of faith, mission statement, employment criteria and other aspects to gain the broadest protection from sexual orientation gender identity laws being passed across the country, according to its authors, the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Beam said he’s woven North Greenville’s mission to “give a quality education in a biblically sound Christ-centered environment” into all of its policies and procedures “so that our protections under the first amendment will shield us as long as possible.”

Having done that, Beam said he’s at peace to stand for his beliefs, while apprehensive that North Greenville’s policies could come under further scrutiny from the government or the court system.