GRAND RAPIDS, MI – At Cornerstone University, marriage has long been defined as a union between a man and a woman.
It’s a view that can be seen in the “Cornerstone Confession,” a document which lays out the institution’s Christian beliefs that all students and staff must accept. The university’s student handbook also states that same-sex relationships are prohibited.
Calvin College also considers sexual relationships between same-sex couples “to be outside the boundaries of acceptable conduct for” employees.
Now, in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court decision that overturned gay marriage bans in Michigan and 13 other states, officials at Cornerstone, Calvin and Christian colleges around the U.S. are wondering how the ruling will impact their policies.
Experts say the decision can’t force institutions to change their beliefs or practices, but it could threaten the tax-exempt status many Christian colleges hold, and the federal benefits they receive.
“The ruling itself doesn’t actually have any impact at all outside of recognizing same-sex marriage as a fundamental right,” said Frank Ravitch, a professor at Michigan State University’s College of Law.
But, he added: “At least for religiously affiliated entities, the risk isn’t interfering with their beliefs or practices. It’s going to be more a question of whether or not they’re going to be subject to revocation of tax-exempt status down the road.”
Related: Read Cornerstone University’s full statement on the U.S. Supreme Court gay marriage ruling
At this point, whether federal officials will move in that direction is unknown. But it’s an issue that’s on the minds of leaders at many institutions.
In June, prior to the ruling, administrators at 74 Christian colleges signed a letter sent to U.S House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
The letter expressed their “deep concern with the potential loss of tax-exempt status should the Supreme Court find constitutional legitimacy for same-sex marriage.”
The leaders said their concerns were based upon an exchange in April between U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito when the gay marriage case went before the court.
In the exchange, Alito brought up a 1982 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a decision by the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, a religious college in South Carolina that barred anyone in an interracial dating relationship or marriage from enrolling.
In their discussion, Alito asked Verilli whether the same would apply “to a university or college if it opposed same-sex marriage.” Verilli replied that “it is going to be an issue,” according to court transcripts.
In a statement, Cornerstone said it “recognizes and respects the Supreme Court’s authority to adjudicate controversial issues” and that the gay marriage decision is “indicative of a general shift in American culture on questions of human sexuality and individual rights.”
But the university also said it looks forward to the protection of “the free expression of our Biblical convictions as we continue to embrace the wisdom of two thousand years of both church and cultural agreement regarding the sanctity of marriage in a traditional sense.”
Cornerstone officials declined to comment on what impact the court ruling would have on the institution’s rules and policies regarding same-sex marriage.
Officials at Aquinas College also declined to discuss the issue.
At Hope College, officials will grant benefits to anyone who meets the legal definition of marriage, including same-sex couples, said spokeswoman Jennifer Fellinger.
Hope has a historic affiliation with the Reformed Church of America, but the school does not have an official position on the gay marriage ruling, Fellinger said. The school does not prohibit same-sex relationships among students or faculty, she said.
In a statement, Calvin said it will take “a while for Christian organizations to discern the meaning of this decision for their respective communities.”
“As the College of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, we will also seek to discern the implications of the Court’s decision with fidelity to Christ, wisdom and charity,” the statement said.
Calvin officials said there’s nothing in the Supreme Court ruling that would require the college to change its policies and begin offering benefits to married, same-sex couples. Sexual relationships between same-sex couples are outside acceptable conduct for Calvin employees, the college said.
Ravitch, the MSU law professor, said institutions granted tax-exempt status are not permitted to violate an individual’s fundamental rights or civil liberties.
As of now, that extends to areas such as race, religion, sex and national origin, he said.
“It’s unclear whether it would apply to sexual orientation,” Ravitch said, but added: “The IRS does not have to grant (nonprofit) status to entities that are violating people’s fundamental rights.”
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