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When a University Won’t Support Human Dignity for LGBTQ Folks

“My how things have changed!” said Lia Scholl, pastor of Wake Forest Baptist Church, a congregation that has made its home on the campus of Wake Forest University since 1956.

In March, the church ordained Erica Saunders, a third-year student at Wake Forest Divinity School.

What raised eyebrows in some Baptist circles and blood pressure in others was not that the newly ordained minister was a woman; it was that Saunders was one of the first openly transgender persons to be ordained by a Baptist church.

“Erica is a student at Wake Divinity,” Scholl told Bob Allen, news editor at Baptist News Global, “and has the support of the office of diversity and the LGBTQ Center.”

There was no LGBTQ Center in 2000 when a controversial same-sex ceremony of union – we didn’t call it a wedding in those days because same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in any country in the world – took place on campus in the university’s iconic Wait Chapel.

As pastor of Wake Forest Baptist Church at the time, I participated along with several clergy persons, one of whom was later tried for heresy by his denomination.

The university opposed the ceremony and initially prohibited it.

A few days after the university trustees made their opposition known, an email circulated through the student body encouraging students to find a way to show their support of the church.

The following Sunday morning, the steps of Wait Chapel were blanketed with flowers; posters with messages of support and appreciation decorated the massive columns as high as you could reach.

During the offertory, students silently stepped outside, gathered the flowers, brought them into the chapel and spread them over the communion table.

The next week, students took out a full-page ad in the campus newspaper

voicing their support.

The Faculty Senate, members of the law school faculty, even the university librarians passed resolutions critical of the administration.

Finally, the university relented and gave its permission for the ceremony to be held on campus.

Later, the president of the student Gay-Straight Alliance said that the ceremony and the controversy surrounding it were a catalyst for change on campus.

A few months after the highly publicized controversy, University President Thomas Hearn announced the appointment of a task force to “ensure inclusiveness on this campus.”

He instructed the student life committee to “make sure that there are resources available to advise the gay student community.”

At its spring meeting, the board of trustees that initially prohibited the use of a university facility for a same-sex covenant ceremony granted same-sex couples on the faculty and staff the same benefits as those accorded to heterosexual married couples.

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning (LGBTQ) Center opened in 2011.

My how things have changed.

Yet, as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

There is no LGBTQ Center at Baylor University –not yet anyway – which now calls itself a “private Christian university” that is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

In April 2019, a letter was sent to Dr. Linda Livingstone, president of Baylor, asking the administration to “reconsider its exclusion of student organizations that are designed to provide a community for individuals in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) and allied community.”

Over 3,000 members of the “Baylor family” have signed the letter. Signatories include lawyers, bank presidents, a former Baylor vice president, a founder of People magazine, a former U.S. congressman and more than a hundred ministers, including me.

The university administration has turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the request.

The board of regents refused to meet with members of Gamma Alpha Upsilon, the student organization that has been refused official recognition by the university since 2011.

One would like to think that one’s university is, to borrow an image from Martin Luther King Jr., a thermostat that transforms society and not merely a thermometer that reflects society’s values.

One would like to think that one’s university would rise up and take a courageous stand for human dignity and respect.

One would like to think that a university that encourages its students to think critically and independently would model that independence in its own positions and actions.

It is disappointing to find out that none of that is so.

Still, it is heartening – downright thrilling, as a matter of fact – to know that thousands of people, a remnant, with connections to Baylor have challenged their university to live up to its commitment “to be a servant of the church and of society” (online mission statement) just as 20 years ago members of the Wake Forest community challenged their university to live up to its motto: Pro Humanitate – For Humanity.

Hope is always to be found among the remnant.

Richard Groves

Richard Groves, retired after 23 years as pastor of Wake Forest Baptist Church on the campus of Wake Forest University, holds a doctorate from Baylor University. He writes regular op-eds for the Winston-Salem Journal.