NEW YORK – When Ms Raegan Zelaya and Mr Shua Wilmot decided to include their pronouns at the end of their work e-mails, they thought they were doing a good thing: following what they viewed as an emerging professional standard and also sending a message of inclusivity at the Christian university where they worked.
But their bosses at Houghton University, in upstate New York, saw the matter very differently.
Administrators at Houghton, which was founded and is now owned by a conservative branch of the Methodist Church, asked Ms Zelaya and Mr Wilmot, two residence hall directors, to remove the words “she/her” and “he/him” from their e-mail signatures, saying they violated a new policy. When they refused to do so, both employees were fired, just weeks before the end of the semester.
Houghton’s firing of the two staff members has dismayed some of its alumni, nearly 600 of whom signed a petition in protest. And it comes as gender and sexuality have become major fault lines in an increasingly divided nation and after other faith-based organisations, including Yeshiva University in Manhattan, New York, have argued that First Amendment protections of religious freedom allow them to treat gay and transgender people differently than others.
As Republican lawmakers across the country have sought to energise their base by passing laws restricting gender-transition health care and banning drag performances and classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity, Christian colleges have become staging grounds in these escalating debates.
In particular, institutions like Hillsdale College in Michigan and Liberty University in Virginia have taken central roles, both producing and attracting leaders of the movement.
With fewer than 1,000 students, Houghton is smaller and off the beaten track, but it has made other recent moves that put it in line with its conservative Christian peers and that have alarmed some alumni. Since 2021, it has closed a multicultural student centre and an environmental sustainability programme and rescinded its recognition of an on-campus LGBTQ club after the club declined to more promote conservative views on sex and gender.
“I think it boils down to: They want to be trans-exclusive, and they want to communicate that to potential students and the parents of potential students,” Mr Wilmot said of his firing.
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