A Christian college in the N.C. mountains that’s long been associated with the Billy Graham family is in turmoil over the school’s insistence that faculty and staff sign and live in accordance with a new document that opposes same-sex marriage and abortion.
Montreat College’s “Community Life Covenant,” which was recently added to faculty and staff handbooks, uses loftier language and includes many widely admired tenets like “be people of integrity” and “seek righteousness, justice and mercy.”
What’s become controversial are those parts of the covenant that expect those who work at the school to affirm “the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman” and the “worth of every human being from conception to death” – phrases that translate into condemnations of same-sex marriage and abortion.
Also an issue with some: The covenant appears to favor a literal interpretation of the Bible, calling the book “the infallible Word of God and fully authoritative in matters of life and conduct.”
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Some faculty and staff have refused to sign, effectively ending their employment at the college as of mid-May, when the current semester ends.
A small number of the 876 students enrolled at the close-knit college held a public protest on Wednesday, hoisting signs reading “Make Montreat Montreat Again” and “Don’t Break Our Family.” Students are not required to sign the covenant.
The controversy has even riled up some in Montreat and neighboring towns. Black Mountain resident and lifelong Presbyterian Ina Jones Hughs wrote a fiery column for the Asheville Citizen-Times:
“What Montreat College has just done is alarming and disgusting. Demanding its faculty and administration to sign a pledge which ... treats LGBT Christians as outside the fold and their relationships as spiritually unworthy; stands opposed to women’s reproduction choices; and declares theirs a literal interpretation of the Bible ... Montreat College hard-handed ‘covenant’ .... brings shame to the history and reputation of Montreat as a welcoming community.”
But Montreat College spokesman Adam Caress, in a statememt emailed to the Observer, said the new covenant, as well as the college’s other “core documents” – mission statement, vision statement, and statement of faith – “are rooted in core biblical values that have been central to Christianity for 2,000 years and central to the college throughout its 101-year history. “They do not represent a change in the college’s core beliefs, but are rather an affirmation of what the college – and orthodox Christianity in general – has always believed.”
Some who oppose the covenant are pointing a finger at the conservative Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), which last month contributed $100,000 to the college’s scholarship fund.
The school and the BGEA both denied that the Charlotte-based ministry – now headed by Franklin Graham, a Montreat College alumnus and an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage and abortion – had any involvement in writing the covenant or insisting that faculty and staff sign it.
“BGEA had no role,” said its spokesman Mark DeMoss. “There is a 70-year relationship between the college and the Graham ... family, with many gifts being given over the years from individual Graham family members and the BGEA.”
The Graham family and organization have had a say in Montreat College policy for years. Ruth Graham, Billy’s late wife, served on the school’s board of trustees for nearly a decade. (She and Billy were married in the college’s chapel, which now bears their names). Will Graham, Franklin’s son, has also been a trustee.
And two sources told the Observer on Thursday that David Bruce, executive assistant to 98-year-old Billy Graham and one of the college’s current trustees, will soon become the new chairman of that board.
The elder Graham, who still lives in the family’s mountaintop home in Montreat, never strayed from a literal reading of the Bible. But as he grew older, he appeared to mellow, emphasizing God's love and offering a more inclusive vision that he said left the judging of others to God.
But Billy’s son Franklin, who read a Scriptural passage in January at President Donald Trump’s inauguration, has become a polarizing figure in his sometimes confrontational quest to promote socially conservative views he says are mandated by the Bible.
Corrie Greene, an English teacher at the school, said Montreat College’s new covenant may or may not have been Graham’s idea, “but it certainly didn’t hurt the relationship between the BGEA and the school.”
Greene, who also directs the college’s writing center, said she and eight other faculty members are leaving the school because of the covenant. She said the document doesn’t just pertain to what faculty do and say in the classroom and on campus.
“It says we must affirm and uphold the college’s specific spiritual stances in our full 24 hour/seven-day-a-week personal life,” said Greene, 44, who calls herself an evangelical Christian. “I can’t let somebody else write my personal testimony. In my faith, Christ is constantly showing me something new.”
Caress said in an email that only two faculty members – one of its 39 full-time faculty and one of its 142 adjunct faculty – have cited the school’s “core documents,” including the covenant, as the reason they will not return to the school after this semester.
Caress said Montreat College spent the past 2 1/2 years “reviewing and revising” those core documents in a “transparent and deliberative process” that included 13 “listening sessions,” during which the school heard and responded to the concerns of faculty, staff, and alumni.
One of the professors who signed the covenant and supports it: Kevin Auman, chairman of the music departmment and a professor of music business.
“The document didn’t seem unusual to me. I didn’t see anything new,” said Auman, 50, who’s been employed at the school for 17 years. “And it’s not out of sync with what I believe as an elder in a Presbyterian Church.” His church, Christ Community Church-Montreat, is affiliated with a denomination – Evangelical Presbyterian Church – that does not marry same-sex couples.
Auman said he respects and continues to have close friendships with fellow faculty who could not bring themselves to sign the covenant. He also pointed out that the covenant does not change Montreat College’s open enrollment policy toward students. “We are welcoming no matter what they believe in and whether they’re gay or straight,” he said. “If there was even a hint that I would be expected to treat those students with anything less than genuine love, care and respect, I’d be out of here.”
All this is playing out in Montreat, a scenic town of less than 1,000 people that’s surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was founded in the early 1900s as a spiritual retreat – its name hints at “mountain” and “retreat” – and is a short drive from Asheville and Black Mountain.
The town’s two major institutions – Montreat College and Montreat Conference Center – are near each other but have grown far apart on some theological matters.
The large conference center hosts religious conferences year-round. It’s affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A (PCUSA), the country’s biggest and most liberal Presbyterian denomination. So it’s particularly popular with those Presbyterians, who come by the hundreds every year for spiritual retreats and denominational meetings. In August 1965, just months after the bloody civil rights march in Selma, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to the center to speak to a group of Presbyterians about “The Church on the Frontier of Racial Tension.”
Montreat College, founded in 1916, was for 60 years owned and operated by the Mountain Retreat Association, which is still affiliated with the PCUSA. But the college became a separate non-profit organization in 1975. More than a decade ago, the school became non-denominational and is now a private Christian liberal arts college with undergraduate and graduate programs. Some of its specialties: Environmental studies, outdoor education, the music business, business administration, and Bible and religion.
Last July, it exited the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities, a group that includes Davidson College, Johnson C. Smith University and Queens University of Charlotte. That association is still affiliated with the PCUSA, which has voted to allow its congregations and pastors the option of marrying same-same couples in their sanctuaries.
Montreat College has gradually gone in a different, more conservative direction. It has remained a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which two years ago issued a statement affirming its opposition to same-sex marriage. That same year, two of the group’s member schools caused a rupture in the council when they changed policy and hired same-sex couples. The two schools eventually left the council.
Another school that’s part of the conservative Council: Sterling College in Kansas, where Montreat College’s current president, Paul Maurer, was once president.
But Montreat College’s faculty includes members of some non-evangelical denominations, some of whom have taken a more liberal stance on same-sex marriage, abortion and biblical interpretation.
Nate King, an information technology services librarian at Montreat College, is an Episcopalian, a Christian denomination that blesses same-sex marriages.
King, 33 and also an English teacher, said he had major issues with the covenant but signed it because he needed to keep his job. He has two young sons, ages 7 and 5. And his wife is disabled.
One of his biggest problems with the covenant: Its implicit condemnation of LGBTQ relationships. His wife was raised by two lesbians, who are married.
“It hurt my wife in a lot of ways,” King said of the covenant. “And I think it sort of made me not want to bring my boys to the campus anymore. (With their grandmothers being lesbian), it’s going to be difficult for them when they (are old enough) to know where I work.”
King, who stressed that he was speaking for himself and not the college, said he took his concerns to Montreat College President Maurer. King said he even read the president Bible passages that stressed love and not judging.
“When I told him I was Episcopalian, he sort of chuckled,” said King. “He said Episcopalians had a low view of Scripture.”
Maurer, who has been president of Montreat College since 2014, was not available for an interview Thursday, Caress said.
The statement Caress emailed to the Observer said that the college understands “that people can and do have differing opinions about prevailing societal issues. We do not seek to impose our values on those outside our campus community, but rather seek to model Christ’s love through caring and compassionate response when we disagree.”
But the statement goes on to suggest that the covenant may serve as a way to more clearly brand Montreat College as a Christian college with certain religious liberties – language that some conservative schools and churches are adopting in the wake of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings:
“However, as a Christian institution of higher learning, U.S. law protects the freedom of religious educational institutions like ours to hire and employ ... based on sincerely held religious beliefs. These shared beliefs form the foundation of our Christian community.”
Matt Langston, 31, an adjunct professor in the school’s music business department, said he and his wife, a career counselor at the college, both declined to sign the covenant and will be leaving next month. The document has hurt, not helped, the school’s sense of community, he said.
Langston, who started an audio production program for students who want to make music, said his friendships with gays and lesbians in the music business gave him pause when it came time to decide whether to sign.
Plus, he said he didn’t like the idea of giving the college that much control over him.
“Any time you have an employer basically wanting to have a say or control of your personal, spiritual and religious life,” Langston said, “I think that’s a really dangerous precedent.”