SHAWNEE — Leaders of an advocacy organization that demonstrated at Oklahoma Baptist University said Wednesday morning that student response to the group's visit was largely friendly.
Soulforce, a group that promotes equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, held a silent vigil at OBU on Wednesday to protest what the group calls discriminatory campus policies. Members of the group also met privately with university officials Wednesday afternoon to discuss their concerns.
The event was a part of the group's Equality Ride, a nationwide bus tour that brings activists to college campuses with policies the group says discriminate against nonheterosexuals.
The group met in a parking lot at the corner of W MacArthur and N Kickapoo streets before heading to campus. Jason Conner, the group's co-director, said several students crossed the street to offer support.
Even before the demonstration began, about 20 students stopped to speak with group members, telling them that many students disagreed with the university's policy regarding homosexuality, Conner said.
OBU's student handbook, called the Green Book, lays out the university's policy regarding sexuality. It specifically prohibits extramarital sex and homosexuality, as well as rape, incest and pornography.
Marty O'Gwynn, OBU's associate vice president for university advancement, said the policy reflects what university officials see as biblical standards. The policy has been in place since the early 1980s, he said, and was revised in 2006 to include language outlining the policy's basis in scripture.
O'Gwynn emphasized that the policy isn't intended to target homosexuality specifically, but instead to discourage all sex outside of marriage. Failure to comply with the policy could result in disciplinary action, including expulsion from the university, O'Gwynn said, although such action is rarely taken. University officials don't take proactive measures to find policy violators, he said, but simply handle cases as they arise.
“We're not in a position of doing investigations into student or faculty or staff behavior,” he said.
Making a point
Wednesday's demonstration included a silent vigil, in which group members stood a few feet off university property, holding signs but saying little or nothing. The members' silence, Conner said, was a part of the point of the rally. It reflects the fact that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students at OBU must keep silent about their identities, he said.
The group's visit to OBU was a part of a larger swing through Oklahoma that also included a panel discussion at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany on Monday. The discussion included members of the group, as well as Brad Strawn, SNU's vice president for spiritual development, and Tim Crutcher, a professor in the university's school of theology and ministry.
Christian Parks, Soulforce's Oklahoma City coordinator, said the tone of the discussion was pleasant at first, but turned uncomfortable when issues of student sexuality arose. After the discussion, a handful of SNU students approached members of the group to apologize for the school's administration and policies, Parks said.
SNU's campus policies include rules regarding sexuality similar to those at OBU. SNU students must sign a so-called lifestyle covenant, which includes prohibitions against pornography, premarital or extramarital sex, “immoral heterosexual activity” and homosexuality.
Most of the tension between the group and SNU officials happened not during the panel discussion, but in simply trying to arrange the event, Parks said. When the group began trying to organize the event, SNU officials seemed reluctant to agree, he said.
“Most of the fighting happened before we got there,” he said.
When Soulforce organizers notified SNU officials that the school had been identified as one they would be visiting, university officials decided it was best not to bar members from coming on campus, SNU spokeswoman Sarah Roberts said.
SNU officials presented Soulforce with a letter outlining campus events they would be allowed to participate in, Roberts said. The two sides agreed on an agenda for the day before the event, she said. Bringing the group on campus allowed university officials to engage in civil conversation with them, she said.
“Although we have significant and meaningful disagreements in core fundamental matters, we hope to have modeled faithfulness to these convictions without being judgmental or hurtful,” she said.
Roberts said the university is unable to change or reconsider its policy regarding homosexuality because of its affiliation with the Church of the Nazarene, which has characterized homosexuality as sinful and contrary to Christian scriptures.
Although that policy will remain in place for the foreseeable future, Roberts said university officials see homosexuality as one of the most complex, critical issues facing the church today.
“We hurt over the way that some people have been treated in the name of Christ,” she said.