The right to be wrong

Most observers of Baptist life know by now that a judge ruled in favor of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and its president Paige Patterson in a case filed by Sheri Klouda. If not, the ABP story by Rob Marus is here.
The former Hebrew professor claimed gender discrimination and breach of contract when Patterson denied her tenure.
The judge said religious freedom guarantees in the First Amendment allow churches and church-owned institutions to make religiously motivated decisions about employment.
I think the judge is right. Religious freedom gives churches and individuals the right to be wrong.
Only a hard-core fundamentalist like Patterson and his dwindling flock of followers would see the dismissal and mistreatment of Dr. Klouda as a good thing. By all accounts, she was a superb Hebrew language professor with conservative credentials (a graduate of Criswell College and Southwestern Seminary).
But forget the logic. Never mind that she is not ordained, is not a pastor and has affirmed the theologically narrow 2000 Baptist Faith and Message statement.
Forget that Klouda was hired in 2002, the year before Patterson became president, and did nothing other than serve as a competent and well-liked professor until Patterson denied her tenure in 2004.
Was Patterson wrong? Many think so. But the judge has ruled that — in religious settings — individuals and institutions have the right to be wrong.
While I regret that Dr. Klouda and her family have suffered through this harsh treatment, my sympathy for those caught in the snares of fundamentalism is running low.
Since taking control of the Southern Baptist Convention more than two decades ago, male-dominated fundamentalist leadership has consistently adopted theological positions and enforced institutional policies that relegate women to secondary status.
Klouda’s dismissal is just another along this well-worn path.
Paige Patterson’s dismissal of Sheri Klouda is consistent with the kind of religious fundamentalism he has exhibited his whole life — and has imposed (with majority vote from Southern Baptists) on the SBC since he and Judge Paul Pressler planned the takeover in the ’70s.
As one friend said to me recently: “Southern Baptists got what they asked for — and probably what they deserved.”
And as another friend often reminds me: “If you pick up a snake, don’t complain when it bites you.”
The judge has made it clear: Religious leaders have the right and freedom to discriminate against women and to mistreat employees.
Let me also make it clear: Fundamentalists do that consistently. If you pick up that snake…?


  1. An inquisitive question, not accusative one:

    If it is allowable to discriminate within religious groups based upon one’s sex, should it also be allowable to do so based on one’s race? What about those who are handicapped?

    I’m trying to understand where the law stops (or should stop) and the rights of the church start.

  2. jpland asks an excellent question. According what I heard Randall Balmer say in a lecture a couple of weeks ago, in Green v. Conally a court ruled that a private religious educational institution that discriminates based on race can lose its tax exempt status.

    I am way out of my element here–I am no leagal scholar. In my notes on the Balmer Lecture, I show Green v. Conally as a Supreme Court decision handed down in 1971. However, according to a little web searching that I just did, this is a lower court decision of 1970 upheld by the high court in Colt v. Green in 1971.

    Be that as it may, is it possible that Southwestern has the legal right as a private religious institution to discriminate based on gender but that they could lose their tax exempt status if they exercise that right?

    I certainly do not know the answer, but it seems to me to be a good question.

  3. Several years ago Bob Jones University lost its tax exempt status because of its policy against interracial dating. That was a wrong decision but it is the precedent which has been set (lest anyone take interpret that statement as hostility to interracial couples, let me say that I have no objection to them and have, in fact, officiated an interracial marriage).

    The judge ruled correctly in the Klouda/Southwestern case, but I could see a judge more hostile to Bible Christianity overturning that ruling.

    I could also envision judges in the future using tax exemption as a leverage against churches which hold politically incorrect beliefs on subjects such as sodomy, corporal punishment, and ecumenism.

    Mark Osgatharp
    Wynne, Arkansas

  4. The basic issue of some form of discrimination in employing persons who hold ministerial role is understandable. For example, Roman Catholics should be free to hire only unmarried males as priests if that is their religious doctrine and practice.
    What seems so ugly about the SWBTS situation is that Dr. Klouda was hired for the position, served well in the role, was told (by her account) that her tenure track was secure and then dismissed.
    My point is why would anyone want to work in a setting where this kind of mistreatment is accepted and even applauded by some?
    (John- I’ll pass your good question along to someone who might help us.)

  5. The broader point of understanding who you’re working with is well-made. It’s a habit of mine to get curious about the insignificant details.

    I understand your fear, Mark, regarding the fact that if the government gets involved just a little, then they have the opening to get involved a lot. But on the flip side, what happens when “corporal punishment” is the excuse used for abuse of a child? (coming from a recent news story out of Atlanta) The church claimed “separation of church and state” and demanded “religious freedoms”, but the children were clearly subjected to abuse.

    This is just an example and I’m sure that there are many more on various other issues. Is it ever OK to not “render unto Caesar”?

  6. JPLand,

    So far as corporal punishment goes, there are doubtless cases where the state must judge whether or not abuse has been committed, and certainly a child abuser might try to hide his crimes under the cloak of religious liberty. But it is no secret that there are many in our society who consider all corporal punishment abuse and I could certainly see a leftist judge using his position to enforce this philosophy.

    So far as rendering unto Caesar, it is never right to withhold from Caesar what is rightfully his. However, when Caesar intrudes into those things that belong to God, then Peter’s axiom comes into play:

    “We ought to obey God rather than man.”

    Mark Osgatharp
    Wynne, Arkansas

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