Calvin creates a research center to avoid firing a gay worker

Calvin University has long banned its employees from pursuing same-sex relationships, but Nicole Sweda doesn’t believe officials at the evangelical university have ever enforced the policy.

Now she knows they do.

Until recently, Sweda worked at the Center for Social Research, a center for social science investigation and analysis that operates under Calvin. When university officials learned that she had just married his girlfriend, Annica, they called her to a meeting.

“They opened up in prayer, and then they basically asked me two questions: if I had married Annica in the fall of 2021, to which I said ‘Yes’, and if we had been living together since May 2020, at which I also said “Yes,” Sweda said. “Then they told me I was violating the staff handbook, so I couldn’t be employed by Calvin anymore. I asked if I was fired, and they said, ‘Well, we’re not yet. really sure.”

Calvin, a private college in Grand Rapids, Michigan, considers non-heterosexual sex to be sexual misconduct, a common belief among evangelical institutions. While a growing number of students support LGBTQ+ relationships, attitudes among board members haven’t changed as quickly, experts say. As a result, it will likely be decades before many evangelical colleges revise their policies on non-heterosexual relationships.

Calvin’s officials didn’t fire Sweda right away. Instead, they decided to part ways with the Center for Social Research, allowing Sweda to keep her job without violating university policies, she said.

In February, the center announced plans part ways with Calvin at the end of April. The divorce will be budget-neutral and the two institutions will continue to collaborate, although they will become separate legal entities, according to the announcement.

Matthew Kucinski, a university spokesman, said university policies prohibit officials from discussing personnel matters, and he did not comment on what happened to Sweda. He did not refer to a personal decision as the catalyst for the split, although Sweda said the university had no plans to establish the center until he met with university officials.

“Decisions like these often occur against a complex backdrop of immediate and even emerging issues, longer-term pressures and future opportunities,” Kucinski said in an email. “And the decision to develop CSR was both mutual and consistent with previously identified pressures and future opportunities for the center to thrive as an independent entity. Although CSR has been an integral part of the university for very long, we are confident that the CSR mission, organization and community will flourish in new ways as they benefit from strategic business advantages linked to the independence of the institution, including access to capital, the possibility of colocation with partner organizations, agility and diversity of the workforce that they deem necessary for their entrepreneurial community engagement and partnerships.

News of the institutions’ split was brutal, making students and faculty suspicious of the motives behind the decision, said Harm Venhuizen, editor-in-chief of Calvin Chimes, the university’s student newspaper. Venhuizen and other student journalists conducted an investigation which led them to Sweda. Their subsequent reporting on the chain of events that led to Calvin’s split with the CSR prompted Sweda to step down so she could speak out.

“The whole story was going to come out anyway, and I felt very strongly that I wanted to be involved in how it was told,” Sweda said. “I quit my job at the Center for Social Research a few weeks ago so I could speak without any repercussions.”

Calvin says he has no problem with LGBTQ+ students and employees, as long as they don’t pursue non-heterosexual relationships. The university’s website says the institution treats LGBTQ+ students “with respect, justice, grace, and understanding in the Spirit of Christ.” The university is home to a sexuality and gender awareness group and counseling services for LGBTQ+ students.

But those claims ring hollow for queer students and employees, Sweda said.

“They’re really trying to recruit gay students to come there under the guise of being a welcome place for you, and I don’t think that’s true,” she said. “I want it to be a more tolerant place, but I don’t think that will happen. I really hope out of this situation that Calvin is more honest and upfront about these things.

The staff handbook states that “while it is the policy of the university to provide equal opportunity in its recruitment, staff practices and admissions without regard to marital status or sexual orientation, sexual relations outside marriage are prohibited”. The university, like the Christian Reformed Church to which it is affiliated, defines marriage as “a conventional union between a man and a woman”.

Calvin is part of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, whose members have all adopted similar policies against LGBTQ+ sex.

“Some institutions will fall on a range of positions, but all should align themselves around three fundamental commitments of biblical truth, Christian formation, and witness to the gospel,” a CCCU spokesperson wrote in a statement. E-mail. “Calvin University is a Christian university committed to the Reformed tradition. As such, it has policies for employees that only require marriage between a man and a woman. This is not a new norm and the university has a responsibility to live by and adhere to its stated mission and policies.

A group of elders started a petition demanding that the university change its discriminatory policies. Sweda has created a Fundraising for LGBTQ+ students who need financial assistance to leave Calvin, seek counseling, find gender-affirming housing and more.

Student opinions on LGBTQ+ issues are mixed, according to Venhuizen.

“You have students who believe that same-sex marriages are really bad or an active sin and completely agree with the [Christian Reformed Church] position,” Venhuizen said. “And then you have a strong contingent of affirming college students and college students who are LGBTQ+ and are in same-sex relationships that fall on the exact other side. It’s definitely a complicated environment with a lot of different points of view on the matter.

Title IX laws prohibit most institutions from sanctioning employees who engage in same-sex relationships. But Calvin has a religious exemption he can exercise against federal law prohibiting sex discrimination, said Paul Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, which fights such exemptions in court.

“Title IX currently has a religious exemption that the courts and the Department of Education have interpreted very, very broadly, so that if you’re a religious educational institution and you don’t like some of the title IX, you don’t have to follow that,” Southwick said.

Such exemptions are often used to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and employees, Southwick said. In the past, colleges and universities have also used them to prevent women from attending certain institutions or enrolling in specific disciplines, to punish them for terminating a pregnancy, to prohibit access to contraception and to enforce strict gender norms.

Southwick believes the split between Calvin and the Center for Social Research is just the start of a broader examination of the university with its outdated LGBTQ+ policies. Directors and board members are likely to face additional pressure until they are eventually forced, legally or otherwise, to change the rules.

“I see this as a very good sign of equality for LGBTQ+ students and employees of conservative religious institutions, because it’s a sign of a broken system that is starting to break,” he said. “It’s a crack.”

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