News Channel 11 was informed anonymously in late June that during its spring semester, Milligan University had forced a gay professor to resign or renounce their lifestyle. Since then, we have spoken to students, alumni, administrators, a pastor and a Constitutional scholar about the issue of homosexuality within the Christian faith, workplace rights and the Constitution, and the past, present and future of Milligan. Milligan President Bill Greer declined an interview request but provided a statement.

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – When Milligan College freshman Molly Dycus learned last March that a gay professor had been forced to abandon their lifestyle or resign, she was embarrassed and disappointed.

“I was embarrassed to tell other people that didn’t go to Milligan, didn’t know about it … to have to be like, ‘yeah, that’s something my school, the university that I want to be proud of did,” Dycus told News Channel 11.

“That was also just incredibly disappointing to hear about,” Dycus, now a sophomore, added. “It still does seem very discriminatory even if legally it wasn’t.”

Much has changed since the incident first came to the wider Milligan community’s attention. The faculty member has a new job at another college. Milligan is now a university and Dycus is a sophomore.

But Dycus and a group of students and alumni are hoping for a different kind of change at the Christian liberal arts school. They don’t want LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) faculty, students, or anyone else associated with what Dycus describes as the Milligan “family” to be excluded or feel unsafe openly being “their whole selves.”

Milligan University sophomore Molly Dycus

The requests are outlined in a form letter that a large number of students and alumni emailed to Milligan’s administration last spring.

While saying the administration wouldn’t discuss specific personnel issues, Greer added: “We’re aware that several months ago, some specific concerns were raised by some students and alumni.” 

The letter asks not for a reversal of the faculty decision, but says Milligan “has taken advantage of the fact that they are a private, religious institution.” It professes “immense love” for Milligan and holds up the frequent use of the word love in the Bible.

“You did not show love to our professor, but instead turned them away and rejected them for who they are,” the letter says. “As a Christian educational institution, Milligan is supposed to be teaching their students to love others as Jesus instructed them to, but this decision exemplified the opposite.”

More specifically it asks if the administration will “promise the Milligan community:

  • that you will not make any further administrative decisions that discriminate against a person based on their sexual orientation?
  • that you will require diversity training for Milligan’s administration?
  • that you will make Milligan’s anti-discrimination policy inclusive of LGBTQ+ individuals?
  • that you will protect your LGBTQ+ students, faculty and staff and treat them equally to their counterparts?

Dycus and a recent alumnus met with Greer about the issue once this summer — a follow up meeting was discussed but hadn’t occurred when Dycus spoke with News Channel 11 earlier this month.

‘If you love something you’re going to be willing to ask the hard questions of it and then work on it.’

mikaela way, milligan university alumnus

Dycus said she and her partner in the effort presented “different ways inclusion could look like on Milligan’s campus.

“We had a couple ideas going in, some of which they were receptive to and some that they maybe felt like would be too much right now, which I do understand it needing to be smaller steps,” Dycus said.

Greer’s statement included this: “(I)n recent months, we have approved the establishment of a student led campus support group, modified several student handbook policies to, among other things, assure LGBTQ students that they are safe from harassment and bullying, and are considering modifications to other policies that will reinforce Milligan’s desire to be a welcoming community for everyone.”

Dycus said Greer seemed receptive to another meeting and more discussion, “which we definitely really appreciated and were grateful for.”

By and large, though, Dycus said the administration’s response has aligned with what she believes is a traditional approach of silence about the issue of sexual orientation at the 154-year-old school.

“It was like, ‘we’re not gonna deal with that, we’re gonna do this and then we’re going to pretend like it didn’t happen and we’re going to try and keep it kind of hush,” she said.

Alumnus describes Milligan experience as member of LGBTQ community

2019 graduate Mikaela Way also spoke to News Channel 11. She said a movement within Milligan to enact change — or at the very least, dialogue about change — existed before the resignation incident.

Way said she came out during her time at Milligan and that the school’s standards embodied in Milligan’s statement on human sexuality left her leery about being too open.

Milligan graduate Mikaela Way

“There was no way for me to know if my rights were protected or not, and so that was something that I was always very hesitant to tell anyone about,” Way said.

She said she was unsurprised at the forced resignation, but added that conversations had begun around the issue when she was a student. She described the period (2014-2019) as a “learning phase” for her alma mater.

“There was less growth and change,” Way said. “It was more creating a willingness to listen to students, especially students, who do identify as LGBTQ-plus and gathering information.

“While I was there, there was a lot of different things that were student-led that ended up leading to some practical changes after I’d left. But while I was there there was no actual tangible change in how they regulate or how they approach this issue.”

That left LGBTQ students living under a cloud of fear, Way said. In her opinion, so did what she called a vague approach to policy that she said leaders proclaimed allowed the extension of grace “when grace is needed — which is great except when you don’t extend grace.”

“Milligan does have a very, very vibrant queer community already living and thriving on campus,” Way said.

“I’d say a huge percentage of that community is closeted and doesn’t feel like they can be their true and honest selves with the people who are supposed to love them and know them best of all — their Christian community.”

After Way graduated and before the forced resignation, those changes included the December 2019 approval of Sanctuary, a campus group aiming to bring more awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ people, including those at Milligan.

The university’s website describes the group as being “established to provide, in Christian context, support for students who identify with or wish to minister to members of the LGBTQ community.”

Greer’s statement said in addition to approving Sanctuary’s establishment, school leaders in recent months “modified several student handbook policies to, among other things, assure LGBTQ students that they are safe from harassment and bullying, and are considering modifications to other policies that will reinforce Milligan’s desire to be a welcoming community for everyone.”

But Way said the forced resignation just a few months after Sanctuary’s establishment seemed to run counter to creation of a welcoming environment.

“A lot of people were like, ‘wow, that’s really good progress, that’s amazing,'” she said. “Then when all of this happened students are kind of nervous of, ‘ok, we’re backtracking here, what happened?'”

‘While UT or ETSU couldn’t fire a faculty member for being gay, a college like Milligan, a private religious institution, can.’

stewart harris, constitutional scholar

Where the First Amendment meets the Civil Rights Act

News Channel 11 first learned of the forced resignation a day before the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protected LGBTQ employees from being fired on the basis of sexual orientation.

But the short answer to whether Milligan can fire a faculty member or dismiss a student for being gay is yes. Stewart Harris teaches Constitutional law at Lincoln Memorial University and is the host of “Your Weekly Constitutional,” a podcast exploring Constitutional issues.

“While (the University of Tennessee) or (East Tennessee State University) couldn’t fire a faculty member for being gay, a college like Milligan, a private religious institution, can,” Harris said.

It all comes down to current Supreme Court interpretation of the First Amendment’s religion clauses, which Harris said allows “private religious institutions much greater leeway when it comes to their employment practices.”

Harris said a doctrine known as the “ministerial exception” comes into play.

“If a religious institution can characterize one of its employees as carrying out ministerial functions, that is, teaching about the church doctrine or setting an example, then that institution, that church or that church school can hire and fire according to its own religious dictates and without being restricted by things like the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”

Milligan’s faculty handbook cites “immoral behavior” as one reason the university can terminate even a tenured faculty member. Several areas are mentioned including “immoral sexual conduct” described as “any sexual contact outside of a marriage relationship of a man and a woman.”

Harris said the ministerial exception has broadened in recent years at the same time the Supreme Court has expanded protections for LGBTQ people in a trend dating to 1996. That’s when now-retired conservative justice Anthony Kennedy sided with four liberal justices in a gay rights case.

“He just decided at one point that he was very, very offended by the attempt in that case by the state of Colorado to stamp out the gay rights movement,” Harris said. “He was so offended by this that he rose up as a champion of gay rights.”

Harris doesn’t necessarily foresee any serious challenges to the ministerial exception any time soon, but a June 17, 2020 “Inside Higher Ed” article made it clear some institutions are concerned.

The article cited a part of Justice Neil Gorsuch’s majority opinion in which he wrote, “how these doctrines protecting religious liberty interact with Title VII are questions for future cases too.”

The Inside Higher Ed article quotes Catholic University of America President John Garvey, who participated in a friend of the court brief in the case with some other religious colleges and universities:

“It’s a matter of bringing up young men and women to live their lives in a certain way, and we don’t like to be hypocritical in doing that. So we take seriously the fact that marriage is a sacrament that we administer for men and women and not others, and we take seriously the idea that God created men and women and separate sexes and that’s part of the natural order of things.”

Greer, Milligan’s president, expressed something similar in the statement he provided News Channel 11. Greer referenced Milligan’s “Statement Concerning Human Sexuality” that was approved by Milligan’s board of trustees in 2015 and is published in the student handbook.

“It states clearly that we endorse the position that “The Christian scriptures portray human sexuality as a gift from God intended to be expressed within the context of chastity in singleness or covenant marriage,” Greer said in the statement to News Channel 11. “Further, we believe that “Biblical marriage is heterosexual.”

“While Milligan’s position may run counter to trends in popular culture and society, we remain committed to our interpretation of scripture and the protection of religious freedom that is provided by the First Amendment of the Constitution,” Greer said. “Likewise, we remain committed to providing a safe, welcoming educational environment for everyone.”

News Channel 11 spoke to several additional students. They expressed a range of opinions on Milligan’s policy, including at least a couple who acknowledged that their views align with the policy.

None of the students were willing to speak on the record.

About that interpretation: Pastor says sexual orientation not a settled issue in the church

While Milligan’s leadership may see its interpretation of scripture as the correct one — and clearly one that would inform its approach to the Sanctuary club — the question of sexual orientation is far from settled in the church.

Ben Lee is a Milligan alumnus and pastor of Hopwood Christian Church, whose property is contiguous with Milligan’s. Lee said while sexuality was a settled issue for centuries — “you’re just going to find sort of an absence of this discussion” — that’s changed tremendously in the last quarter century.

The trend has been a bit slower in Southern Appalachia, but Lee said it’s been catching up here.

Hopwood Christian Church pastor Ben Lee said conversations surrounding sexual orientation have grown more commonplace within the church.

“It wasn’t really on the radar,” Lee said. “I would have friends or people that I knew who were gay and Christian and struggling to know ‘how do I live my life with regards to my own sexual orientation,’ but it was very secretive.

“It was not something that was talked about on a congregational level because of how much within our tradition, it was just assumed there’s no question. You can’t pursue that lifestyle. And so that’s where it was for probably the majority of my time here.”

He likened the change to other movements within Christendom, such as the evolution of women’s role in the church, the authority of the church hierarchy that led to the Protestant reformation and the church’s position on slavery as an institution.

And he placed the church into four basic camps on the issue at the present time. One group continues to maintain “this is really just an issue of ‘are you going to obey scripture and scripture’s clear that all same-sex relationships are bad, and really you have to be able to give that up.”

At the opposite pole is the so-called “affirming” wing of the church, Lee said. “They would say actually it’s clear that this is something that can be beautiful for the church and the Christian community and same-sex relationships actually fit within scripture,” he said.

Lee characterized a third group as people who really want to avoid controversy and who often have Christian friends on both sides of the issue. “They just don’t want to talk about it in order to maintain unity,” Lee said.

But that unity’s already been fractured, Lee said. And a fourth group that includes some conservative scholars realizes that and is trying to forge a different approach, one that accepts what he called a “dynamic tension that this is not a settled issue.”

He mentioned N.T. Wright and Richard Hayes as two more conservative-leaning scholars who at least acknowledge “this is tension and we have to be able to have a conversation about this.”

“And I think you’ll also find people who are open to the reality that God might be doing something here that contradicts what we would assume is right…

“They acknowledge that this has been a consensus and they acknowledge that scripture doesn’t seem to have condoned this but on the other hand they acknowledge that sometimes God moves in ways that surprise us and might seem contradictory.

“I think there’s a growing community of scholars and church communities that also see this as a conversation of this has to be resolved and there has to be a little bit of tension and we can’t be afraid of tension and dialogue because of the fact that we know that God sometimes surprises us and God moves in ways that are counterintuitive.

“If that is true, then we need to navigate this issue delicately.”

‘How do we uphold the truth that we find in scripture, but do so in a way that is productive and winsome, frankly, to those that perhaps don’t share that belief.’

craig hardy, milligan alumnus

Milligan alumnus Craig Hardy agrees the issue is a delicate one. After reading Greer’s statement, Milligan’s statement on Human Sexuality and the group’s email, Hardy said based on his limited knowledge he senses his alma mater is approaching a sensitive issue appropriately.

“I am supportive of Milligan’s position and their understanding of scripture and what human sexuality is designed to be and hope that folks recognize that Milligan’s willingness to have discussions about these issues exhibits the love that they have for mankind,” Hardy said.

Talking our way forward – with love

Dycus, Lee and Way all said the key to progress on the issue within the church and its various institutions is openness and dialogue.

“At Milligan as an institution it’s not something that’s commonly talked about or addressed, whether it’s something positive or negative,” Dycus said. “I think it’s just an issue that’s usually more avoided.”

Not in her circles, though. Dycus said she and friends had many theologically based discussions about the issue during her freshman year.

And she said her own views on sexual orientation have evolved over the years, from a staunch belief in its sinfulness to wondering whether it was something “God would hold against a person” to what would be described as a fully affirming belief.

She thinks it’s a mistake for Milligan not to dive into the question more openly.

“People will have a lot of different opinions, but it’s good for opinions to be voiced,” Dycus said. “It’s important to be able to hear both sides, both thoughts even if it’s not something you totally agree with.”

Way said it was actually her liberal arts education at Milligan that taught her to think critically and ask questions of the authorities in her life.

“If you love something, you’re going to be willing to ask the hard questions of it and then work on it,” she said.

And if the letter to the administration didn’t express love for Milligan, Way said it was intended to.

“We wouldn’t be asking for things to change if we didn’t care,” Way said. “The opposite of love is apathy, not hate. Sure, we really don’t like some of the policies at Milligan, but we love it enough to not be apathetic towards it.”

Greer said LGBTQ related issues “have been an ongoing topic of discussion for many years” at Milligan.

“It is important to point out that we had already begun to address the matter through respectful and productive conversation with a number of students (before this spring’s incident),” Greer said. 

Milligan alumnus Craig Hardy

Hardy said the 1970s, when he was on campus, were a time when sexual orientation just wasn’t discussed.

“But we also had individuals at Milligan at that time that were of that community, and it was difficult for them,” Hardy said.

“While we didn’t have to wrestle with it at the level that the current administration is having to wrestle with it, it was evident, and an issue that has confronted man and society basically for all the years we’ve inhabited this earth.”

Hopwood’s Lee said people in power at institutions can sometimes convince themselves they’re having productive conversations when the fellow participants may not agree — but don’t feel they have enough power to say so.

“I can understand the hesitancy to do that because we don’t want division,” said Lee, whose own church went through a period of open conversation about the issue. “But I think at the end of the day, we need to be very sensitive to people who are suffering and in pain and I think that is the case with any Christian community where dialogue on this issue is not (occurring).”

Way said communication would be a good starting point for those who remain uncomfortable about LGBTQ issues and people.

“Go meet a student who identifies as queer. Go talk to a professor who is gay. Because there’s so much more about them than that one title, and I can promise you that is not going to be the biggest thing in their life.

“When we stop viewing people as issues and we start viewing them as people it’s a whole lot harder to discard them.”

Hardy said the issue is certainly worth grappling with within Milligan and the church.

“As we do with any human issue it’s a matter of how do we exhibit the love of Christ to our fellow man, how do we uphold the truth that we find in scripture, but do so in a way that is productive and winsome, frankly, to those that perhaps don’t share that belief.”

Dycus said Milligan’s leaders acknowledged that concern about alienating donors plays a role in the pace of administration movement on the issue. But she and Way both see another side.

“The exclusion hurts that population and hurts prospective students who see Milligan’s outlines and their theology and maybe will choose not to come because of it,” Dycus said.

“A really important thing in education and just for our growth (as) people … is just having different opinions, different views, even if they differ from your own,” she said. “It helps you grow, it helps you think, it helps you re-evaluate your own beliefs. Even if it solidifies your own it’s better to have these different perspectives. And I think long term it hurts Milligan.”

Way said she understands the difficult circumstances private liberal arts institutions occupy as they try to navigate an era when some close their doors each year due to financial troubles.

“When you have students and alum and donors and churches and everyone else that you’re trying to organize and get on the same page and have be okay with things, that takes awhile,” she said.

“But do I also see it as an issue where if they continue with these things are they going to make that problem worse? I do, because I think they’re ostracizing their students and their alumni, and as much as you want to please big name donors who are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s now who don’t see this as an issue that they need to change their stance on and don’t want to change their minds on, in 20 years when it’s my generation who’s asked to donate I know several students who’ve said they’re not going to donate because of issues like this.

“I know so many alum who do not want to donate until Milligan changes.”

Like Dycus, Way said she’s not expecting or even seeking overnight change. But she’s adamant that the professor was treated wrongly and that love didn’t win out in that incident.

She doesn’t even necessarily foresee Milligan’s administration or the church as fully affirming LGBTQ as a non-sinful lifestyle in 20 years.

But she certainly wants change from what she perceives as the current status quo, in which students are still afraid that “if I tell the wrong person I could be kicked out of school.”

“In 20 years do I hope we’re saying, ‘I’m just as broken as you are, and my brokenness is no different from yours, so let’s learn to love God better together?’ Yes. Do I see us doing that now? Not with the LGBTQ-plus community. Is that something I’d like to see change in 20 years? It’s something I’d like to see change a lot faster.”