BRUNSWICK, Maine — Three months after volunteer leaders of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship were told the group could no longer meet on campus because they would not agree to abide by Bowdoin College’s nondiscrimination policy related to religion and sexual orientation, the organization has relocated to a building just off campus.
With the same volunteer leaders, the fellowship reformed with a new name and has opened its Christian study center just across the street from the college’s Farley Field House.
The nonprofit Joseph and Alice McKeen Christian Study Center, still led by executive directors Sim and Robert Gregory of Damariscotta, officially opened Sept. 27 in a renovated house on Harpswell Road.
“We’re very happy with the provision that God has made for our group,” Robert Gregory said. “It’s like the phoenix rising from the ashes.”
Last spring, after the Gregorys refused to sign a new nondiscrimination agreement that requires volunteers to comply with college policies prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion, sex or sexual orientation, student government leaders deemed the group’s charter unacceptable and the fellowship withdrew its proposed 2014 charter.
The Bowdoin Orient, a student newspaper, reported at the time that the couple believed “signing the nondiscrimination policy would violate their faith and the Christian gospel they teach, specifically their scriptural interpretations of sexuality.”
Without a charter, a group is not recognized by the college, is not eligible for funding from student government and cannot use such facilities as the college chapel.
The controversy drew front-page coverage from The New York Times, which characterized it as “a collision between religious freedom and antidiscrimination policies.”
The college fired back, with spokesman Scott Hood telling the Bangor Daily News at the time that Bowdoin had “taken no steps to ‘unrecognize’” the fellowship and that administration expected the fellowship to submit a charter in the fall.
But that did not happen. On April 14, the Joseph and Alice McKeen Christian Study Center LLC, with a mailing address in Damariscotta, purchased the house at 65 Harpswell Road from the estate of Alvah Luce for $250,000, according to Brunswick assessing records.
“From the beginning, when it was clear the college policies were not going to yield, and their invitation to us was to continue this ministry off campus … what other alternative did we have?” Gregory said Tuesday of the center.
He declined to discuss financial details of the purchase.
In the new center, the fellowship continues its affiliation with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship — which according to the Orient “has a national reputation for refusing to let LGBTQ students hold leadership positions in its campus chapters.”
Still, this fall, the college offered leaders of the now off-campus group seats on Bowdoin’s Interfaith Council, described on the college website as “comprised of the eight faith groups on campus.”
Hood described the council as a vehicle for informal meetings with Robert Ives, director of Bowdoin’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, at which “these various groups, whether official or not official, share time to talk about their faiths and spirituality.”
Ives did not return repeated calls for comment this week.
In an Oct. 17 editorial, The Orient criticized the college’s decision to offer seats on the council to fellowship leaders.
“By making this offer, Bowdoin undermines its own Freedom from Discrimination and Harassment Policy and its efforts to protect LGBTQ members of the community,” the editorial states.
Ryan Ward, 19, a Bowdoin sophomore from Brewer and a student leader of the fellowship, said Wednesday that the editorial was unfair.
“I think to say we’re sort of an enemy to the community is not true and is something I really take issue with,” Ward said.
He said fellowship members “have never expressed any sort of contempt toward [members of the LGBTQ community], no matter what our opinions on the matter.”
Ward said fellowship members in the spring “felt a real violation of our freedom to operate as a religious organization. If these questions were ever to come up, and we had to make a decision on anything that requires a value judgment, we wouldn’t be able to because of the agreement the college requires.”
Gregory declined to speak about the Interfaith Council seats, and when asked about the college’s reaction to the center — which is named for Bowdoin’s first president, who preached in the Bowdoin chapel, and his wife — he paused, and again declined to comment.
“Despite that the college says we’re outsiders, Sim and I have been on campus for 10 years,” he said. “We’ve spent three, four, five, sometimes six days a week on campus. I wrote two books on Joseph Mckeen. … I do have a sense of McKeen and his original purpose of the college. I think I’m well-qualified to speak to his legacy. I think the Joseph and Alice McKeen Study Center is faithful to his Christian view of the world.”
Ward said that despite the controversy this spring, the center is flourishing and the fellowship is drawing more incoming freshmen than in previous years.
The editors of The Orient — none of whom would speak on record for this story — argue that the fellowship “must decide whether it intends to be a religious organization involved with spiritual life at the college — and comply with Bowdoin’s policies — or an independent group operating off campus.”
Ward said Wednesday that no decision has been made, but he thinks the fellowship should not accept seats on the council.
“We’re not trying to separate ourselves from the campus, but find a way to integrate ourselves into the campus without being an officially chartered organization and without being members of the Interfaith Council,” he said.