The Banner has a subscription to republish articles from Religion News Service. This story by Bob Smietana was published on religionnews.com April 19, 2023. It has been lightly edited, including the addition of the 19th and 36th paragraphs, for clarity for The Banner’s primarily Christian Reformed Church audience.
A former Calvin University professor who lost his job after performing a wedding for a transgender former student has sued the Christian Reformed Church-affiliated school for retaliation and discrimination.
In a complaint filed April 14, lawyers for Joseph Kuilema, who taught social work at Calvin from 2008 to 2022, alleged that school officials fired the former professor due to his support of LGBTQ students and that they retaliated against him for complaining about a film shown on campus that he believed was racist.
The complaint also alleges that Calvin discriminated against one of Kuilema’s former students after he performed their wedding and that he (Kuilema) was fired after complaining about the school’s actions. Kuilema’s attorneys argue school officials at the Grand Rapids university violated Michigan’s civil rights law.
The CRC, which founded and continues to be affiliated with Calvin, defines “adultery, premarital sex, extra-marital sex, polyamory, pornography and homosexual sex” as sinful. In 2022, the church voted to recognize that doctrine as confessional—meaning churches, office bearers (deacons, elders, and pastors) and church-affiliated institutions are expected to confess belief in the teaching in order to remain in good standing. Before 2022, the church’s position, which has not changed, was not categorized as confessional, and disagreement with the teaching was possible as long as individuals and congregations agreed to abide by it.
In a statement, a Calvin spokesman said the university has long allowed faculty to have diverse viewpoints but also has clear rules about conduct.
“While there is room for personal disagreement with CRC doctrine, the university has clear expectations for employees regarding teaching, scholarship and personal conduct and follows established processes to review alleged violations of those expectations and to determine appropriate responses,” the spokesperson said. “We are confident those processes were followed in this case and plan to defend this lawsuit in court. At this time, the university has no further comment on active litigation.“
The complaint details Kuilema’s long-running dispute with school policy.
In 2016, according to the complaint, he began working on a history of LBGTQ employees who had been fired by the school, in hopes of publishing the piece in the student newspaper. The complaint alleges that he was blocked from doing so.
Kuilema also “routinely and openly expressed concerns about Calvin’s treatment of and toward LGBT+ people,” according to the complaint.
While he did inform students about church teaching, Kuilema did not attempt to persuade students to follow that doctrine.
“Rather, he was bluntly honest and vocal with his students, fellow faculty and fellow Calvin community members whenever he disagreed with the CRC’s position, particularly in regard to its positions regarding LGBT+ persons,” stated the complaint.
Despite support from his fellow faculty members, Kuilema was denied tenure at the school in 2018 but continued to teach there on a series of renewable contracts. His attorneys allege that while he was allowed to disagree with church teaching, board members criticized his “tone and strategy.”
That “tone and strategy,” according to the complaint, included advocating for LGBTQ students and for students of color.
In an interview with Religion News Service, Kuilema said things had long been rocky between him and the university.
“I’ve been a thorn in Calvin’s side for a long time,” he said. “They tried to get rid of me a couple of different times. This was about my advocacy, around racism and around homophobia.”
Kuilema’s contract was up for renewal when school officials learned he had officiated the wedding. According to the complaint, he spoke with his pastor and the chair of his department to see if officiating it would violate the “Christian Reformed faith or the values of Calvin.”
According to the complaint, he received “unanimous support that officiating the wedding was consistent with such belief.”
The professor’s attorneys also argue that he was acting as a private citizen and not a Calvin professor when he officiated the ceremony. They note he is not a pastor and does not perform any religious role at the school.
The CRC in 2016 decided at its synod (general assembly) that ordained ministers are prohibited from solemnizing same-sex marriages. The same synod advised officebearers in the church to avoid participating in a same-sex wedding ceremony.
The attorneys argue the wedding, between a former student who identifies as a transgender man and a lesbian woman, did not violate church teaching. The church’s teaching addresses sex, not marriage, they argue, and the school did not have a policy about civil marriage. (At the time news of Kuilema’s part in the civil ceremony broke, the spouses were identified as two women.)
Kuilema’s attorneys allege the university stacked the committee that decided his fate, replacing a supporter with an outspoken critic. They also allege he (Kuilema) was a vocal critic of a decision to show a film titled How Jack Became Black on campus, which he believed perpetuated racism against students of color. His opposition to that film, they argue, was also a significant factor in his termination.
The lawsuit was filed at a time when Calvin, like other evangelical Christian schools, is trying to navigate religious teachings on sexuality with changing societal ideas. According to data from the Public Religion Research Institute, almost a quarter of Americans under 30 (23%) identify as LGBTQ—and many young Americans, including college students, support LBGTQ rights.
After the CRC’s 2022 vote to make its teaching on sexuality confessional, Calvin allowed faculty who disagreed with the policy to file “statements of confessional difficulty.” The school’s board voted to allow those faculty to keep their jobs, reported Chimes, the student newspaper.
Those statements, known in the CRC as “gravamina,” were rare in the past, according to an explainer on the CRC’s website. They have become more common after the 2022 decision and are meant to be part of a friendly process to “seek a fuller understanding of the gospel.”
Some regional groups of churches, known as classes, have submitted formal requests (overtures) to synod to clarify the use of the statements. (See “Classis Watch Winter/Spring 2023,” April 7, 2023.) There are also requests to discipline churches that are not inline with church teaching.
In March, several Calvin officials, including the school’s president and provost, met with leaders of the Abide Project, a conservative group within the CRC that supports the church’s teaching on sexuality, according to Chimes.
They also offered to meet with representatives of All One Body, which advocates for affirming church participation regardless of gender or sexual orientation irrespective of marital status, and of Better Together, a group which believes disagreements on ethical issues are possible in the CRC, the student newspaper reported.
Abigail Ham, who just completed her term as editor-in-chief for Chimes, said that when news of Kuilema’s termination broke last year, there was a great deal of tension at Calvin over LGBTQ issues. Some of the tension eased this fall, she said, after the school’s board decided to retain faculty who dissented from church teaching about sexuality.
“That gave relief to some of the anxiety faculty had been feeling for some time,” she said.
Now there are concerns about the discussion at this year’s synod, where there will be debates over the requests for church discipline around the now confessional teaching.
“If things get ugly there, then things could get really charged and divided on campus,” she said.
Ham hopes that the lawsuit and debates over sexuality won’t define Calvin’s public image. The students and culture, she said, are much more affirming than the institution.
Kuilema said he believes he had the religious freedom to perform the wedding without breaking any church or university rules. He said he got an online ordination (to perform the ceremony) from the same website that ordained celebrities like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Kuilema is now part of the School of Social Work faculty of Grand Valley State University. He said he filed the lawsuit because he believes Christian schools should have to abide by nondiscrimination laws.
“I don’t think that religious institutions should have a blank check to discriminate,” he said.
The Banner reached out to both Kuilema and Calvin University to ask if either had more to say about this Religion News Service article. Kuilema’s only addition was to say he is no longer a member of the CRC. A spokesperson for Calvin shared the same statement that had been previously supplied to RNS.
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