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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
The Brigham Young University marching band performs before the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl at Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — As religious practice declines and support for LGBT rights rises in the U.S., faith-based schools may be at risk of becoming better known for controversial campus policies than academic strengths.

That threat was evident earlier this month when Vice President Mike Pence's wife, Karen Pence, announced her new part-time job teaching art at Immanuel Christian School in Virginia. Some Americans were outraged about the school's opposition to same-sex marriage and transgender identity, and debates broke out on social media over whether it's an appropriate place for Pence to work.

"There is growing hostility to a lot of Christian schools," said Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center.

Kevin J Worthen, president of Brigham Young University, describes this hostility as one of the "external pressures" faith-based schools face today. It's hard to stay true to traditional religious beliefs when accrediting bodies, lawmakers and a growing group of everyday people are all calling for more acceptance of LGBT rights and other changes, he said.

"If you look at the history of higher education, the clear trend has been to start off as religiously affiliated and after some time, decades or centuries, look just like secular universities. We have to keep reminding ourselves of our mission," he said.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
President Kevin J Worthen speaks during Brigham Young University's summer commencement in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018.

Worthen and leaders from around 100 other faith-based colleges and universities are gathering in Washington, D.C., this week to do just that. The Council for Christian Colleges & Universities' annual Presidents Conference is an opportunity to explore why the work of religious schools still matters in a rapidly changing world, said Shirley A. Hoogstra, the council's president, in an email.

"All of us who are persons of faith need to constantly be making the case for the ways in which persons and institutions of faith benefit society at large and why society needs our voices, our graduates and our contributions," she said.

Top challenges

The legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide in June 2015 and state-level efforts to increase protections for gay, lesbian and transgender Americans since then have complicated the work of faith-based schools. Many of these institutions still outlaw homosexual activity, regardless of marital status, in campus conduct codes and teach that gender is set from birth.

"These (policies) are based on Christian teachings that go back 2,000 years," Wehner said.

But conservative interpretations of biblical teachings on sexuality have become less popular over time, which makes religious colleges and universities vulnerable to lawsuits, a loss of funding and interference from accrediting bodies. In recent years, California lawmakers considered barring conservative religious schools from receiving state education grants, and a Christian college in Massachusetts was asked by state officials to review its campus conduct policies.

Additionally, near the end of President Barack Obama's time in office, his administration announced that federal laws against sex discrimination also barred sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. Faith-based colleges and universities had to request controversial exemptions in order to be allowed to enforce certain campus policies.

President Donald Trump's election brought some relief for religious schools. His administration rejects Obama's broader interpretation of sex discrimination, meaning it won't go after schools with a conservative approach to LGBT rights.

However, religious colleges must still worry about the public relations ramifications of their stance on LGBT rights, Wehner said. As the recent Karen Pence drama illustrates, many Americans have no sympathy for schools that want campus policies to match their conservative, religious beliefs.

Cliff Owen, Associated Press
Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, acknowledge the audience at the 2019 March for Life dinner in Washington, on Friday, Jan. 18, 2019.

"If Christian colleges and universities don't change their attitudes on sexual ethics, then do those institutions become essentially persona non grata?" Wehner said.

This week's conference will include sessions on navigating an increasingly hostile culture. Participants will learn from experts inside and outside the world of academia about protecting institutional reputation and reducing political and economic polarization.

"Our sessions this year cover a variety of important topics that we know are top of mind for our campuses — everything from racial reconciliation to crisis management to civic pluralism to the value of global experiential education to uniting our divided country," Hoogstra said.

Speakers include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Senate Chaplain Barry Black and Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The challenges up for discussion aren't all unique to religious schools, Hoogstra noted. Participants will also explore problems that are familiar to leaders of secular schools, like reducing costs, the textbook industry and the need to keep evolving.

"The need for innovation and increased collaboration has led us to explore a variety of new initiatives at the CCCU, including an innovative consortium that enables CCCU institutions to share online courses across a common platform," she said.

Stronger together

The Council on Christian Colleges and Universities' annual Presidents Conference is not just a time for working through concerns. School leaders will also celebrate what makes them unique and plan for the future, participants said.

"Most people worldwide and still in the United States belong to some religious group. Religion is core to who they are and how they see the world," Worthen said. Faith-based institutions "are a great benefit to those who believe."

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
President Kevin J Worthen applauds graduates during Brigham Young University's summer commencement in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018.

Conferencegoers can also participate in group devotions and network over shared meals. One of the goals of the event is to help school leaders gain strength by working together, Hoogstra said.

"The job of a college president is very unique and so the ability to collaborate and learn from peers helps these colleagues sustain their leadership," she said.

This year's pool of peers also includes leaders of non-Christian schools. The final conference panel, which is on misunderstandings about faith and the positive contributions religion makes to society, features speakers from Jewish and Muslim schools.

"We'll hear from college and university presidents representing the Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Protestant and Muslim faith traditions," Hoogstra said.

In this way, the conference challenges the notion that people who disagree on political or religious issues can't work together, Worthen said, noting it's a lesson all of society needs right now.

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"Interaction among schools from different faiths can provide a model or a way of thinking about how to cooperate and have dialogue and help one another even when you disagree about things on a fundamental level," he said.

Wehner, who is moderating the interfaith discussion, hopes the panel, and the conference in general, highlights reasons for optimism amid current challenges. He believes faith-based colleges and universities produce smart, thoughtful adults who can help end polarization and increase religious understanding.

"Religious universities can be on the forefront of creating a culture where religious expression is valued and understood," he said.