A series of colorful messages, accompanied by drawings of rainbows, were chalked in front of academic buildings at the evangelical Christian Azusa Pacific University (APU) on Sept. 30. “You Are Meant To Be Here,” “Love Is Not Selective,” “Love Is Love.”
The sidewalk art looked like a welcome for new LGBT students but, in fact, it was an act of protest after the university announced its plans to reinstate a controversial ban against same-sex romantic relationships. On Sept. 18, the school’s student newspaper reported that language regarding sexual orientation was removed from a policy governing student conduct, a move widely interpreted to mean students in LGBT relationships would no longer be subjected to disciplinary action.
Conservative evangelicals were upset. Accusations that APU had compromised its commitment to upholding biblical teaching on homosexuality appeared in influential outlets like Christianity Today and The Christian Post. Ten days later, the school reversed course, releasing a statement saying the university was trying to “find the best language possible to capture our heart and intent.” The Board of Trustees, APU said, never approved the change—and therefore the policy was amended again to restore the original language banning LGBT relationships.
APU administrators denied that they were influenced by pro-LGBT forces, within or outside the university. “We pledge to boldly uphold biblical values and not waver in our Christ-centered mission,” the board wrote. APU will never “capitulate to outside pressures, be they legal, political, or social.”
APU has a history of discrimination against LGBT students and faculty. In 2013, transgender theology professor H. Adam Ackley was dismissed from APU after 15 years that included serving as chair of the theology and philosophy department. The university declined to comment on personnel matters but Ackley told the Huffington Post he believes he was fired because “other people, such as donors, parents and churches connected to the university will have problems not understanding transgender identity.”
Last year, Mahesh Pradhan, a chef and supervisor at APU, filed a wrongful demotion lawsuit against the university, the fate of which is pending in the Superior Court of Los Angeles. The action alleges university officials physically and verbally assaulted him for his perceived sexual orientation and retaliated against him when he spoke out on behalf of others who encountered similar abuse. APU denies Pradhan’s allegations, but students rallied in support—a harbinger of the recent protests against the ban on same-sex relationships.
Students, including representatives from the LGBT student group Haven, asked for an investigation last year in a letter that also demands APU officially recognize the club. Members of Haven were also in talks with administrators concerning the student conduct policy. Erin Green, an APU alum who is co-executive director of Brave Commons, an organization that offers supportive services for LGBT students at Christian universities, told the Los Angeles Daily News she was shocked by the university’s announcement Sept. 28 that the ban on same-sex relationships would be reinstated.
“We poured our hearts out, were vulnerable and relived our trauma telling our stories, telling stories of previous students who were damaged or hurt in some way by the institution, which had action taken against them for being gay or being in a same-sex relationship. They looked us in the eye and said this policy is harmful, it’s discriminatory, it’s stigmatizing and we’re going to get rid of it. And we trusted them,” Green said of the meeting she and her peers held with university administrators.
Policies against LGBT “behavior,” including romantic relationships, are not unique to APU. Campus Pride, a nonprofit dedicated to LGBTQ college students and their allies, includes such policies in a ranking system, “Shame List: The Absolute Worst Campuses for LGBTQ Youth.” APU earned a spot on that list, along with 17 other universities in California.
Campus Pride notes efforts by evangelical schools and universities to seek exemption from Title IX—the federal anti-discrimination law that applies to higher education—in order to discriminate against LGBT students on the grounds of religious freedom. California tightened allowable Title IX exemptions with the 2016 Equity in Higher Education Act, which effectively permits only seminaries and universities that train clergy/ministers to enforce policies that discriminate against LGBT students and staff. APU fiercely opposed the measure, which applies mostly to institutions that receive government funds or enroll students who receive financial aid from the state.
Students say they face serious consequences when Christian universities seek to discriminate against LGBT students and employees, from inner turmoil and depression to disciplinary action, often expulsion. “I am asked oftentimes by Christian universities to be patient while the universities are trying to make progress in this area,” Green told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, “but, as a gay Christian, honestly, I don’t think we have time for patience and for tolerance. People’s lives are at stake. If [LGBT students] aren’t self-harming or being harmed by others, they are dying on the inside.”
More than 200 students staged an hour-long demonstration the morning of Oct. 1, at the end of which they sang “No Longer Slaves,” with its chorus: “I’m no longer a slave to fear. I am a child of God.”
“We will not be silent. We will not be silenced,” Green wrote on her Facebook page. “We aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, Board of Trustees.”