By Ivey Dejesus
Religion News Service
GRANTHAM, Pa. (RNS) Alumni at evangelical Messiah College have launched an online petition urging the conservative Christian school to change its policies toward gay and lesbian students.
The petition has collected hundreds of alumni signatures, with some indicating that they would withhold donations as long as the college continued to foster "an unsafe and noninclusive campus climate."
The group, InclusiveAlumni.com, is petitioning Messiah to become "a place of reconciliation, compassion, and true community." The petitioners call on Messiah to take steps to prevent harassment and provide sensitivity training to staff.
The move follows a similar petition at another evangelical flagship institution, Wheaton College in suburban Chicago, where gay alumni and supporters have launched the group OneWheaton.
Messiah's Community Covenant prohibits "homosexual behavior," which the petition says dehumanizes and marginalizes students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, and creates divisions within the campus community.
The petition comes in the wake of a story about an openly gay Messiah student who plans to transfer at the end of the semester after being harassed and threatened on campus.
"I'm proud of the fact that I went to Messiah," said Emily Yoder, a 2009 Messiah graduate who spearheaded the petition. "In my experience most professors and students are very accepting and tolerant of LGBT people. However, it does make me kind of embarrassed to be associated with it."
Messiah spokeswoman Beth Lorow said administrators recognized the right of alumni to voice their personal opinions on a variety of issues, and said "the issue isn't new for Messiah."
"It's not uncommon for us to hear from alumni," she said. "The format is different, but these conversations aren't unique."
She said the initiative could "lead to conversation and dialogue," but that it was unlikely it would directly lead to a change in the college's codes and policies.
"If Messiah College were going to make that significant of a change, it would ultimately require governance action and a decision from the board of trustees," Lorow said.
Yoder said the school's current policies have motivated her to not donate to the college's fundraising campaign, adding that other alumni had expressed similar opinions.
"This is a way to tell the college there are alumni who feel this way and they can't in good conscience support the college when it feels this way," she said.
Messiah freshman Isaiah Thomas, who is gay, has said he's received death threats on Facebook, had property stolen and had been harassed by a professor. Thomas said Messiah administrators had followed up on his claims, but had been unwilling to consider changes to the school's covenant.
Louie Marven, the director of education and youth services for the LGBT Community Center Coalition of Central Pennsylvania, said the campaign is "not about one person."
"It's about creating an environment where LGBT students are safe and included in campus life," said Marven, a 2007 Messiah graduate. "It's not about punishing Messiah, nor that Messiah is evil. We know Messiah is great, and we know they can do more, and here are more positive ways to go forward."
Messiah President Kim S. Phipps said media reports had not conveyed the school's thoroughness or speed in investigating Thomas' claims.
"Messiah is transparent about its faith commitments, religious heritage, core values and behavioral expectations on a comprehensive range of issues, not limited to, but including sexual behavior (both heterosexual and homosexual)," Phipps said in a letter to the campus.
"Specifically, the college's stance on homosexual behavior is rooted in a scriptural understanding of marriage and a sexual ethic historically affirmed by the Christian church -- including Messiah's founding denomination, the Brethren in Christ."