Divinity dean's remarks contested following demonstration
Dozens gathered before the Divinity School’s convocation Tuesday in a show of support for the LGBTQ community, following the circulation of a statement allegedly made by Dean Richard Hays that some deemed homophobic.
After Hays spoke at the Divinity School's orientation Friday, an account began circulating online that Hays' comments on diversity included the line "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." Tuesday morning's demonstration was organized in response to the purported statement.
Hays addressed the demonstration in an open letter to the Divinity School community Tuesday evening, saying that the statement circulating online was a truncated version of his remarks and that his message had been "gravely misinterpreted by some who were present.”
In the letter, Hays said that he used his orientation remarks to inform students of the importance of diversity and to share that "all are encouraged to come to one table in an atmosphere of love, respect and mutual acceptance." His speech then addressed the Discipline of the United Methodist Church's position on LGBTQ individuals, which declares that all persons are “individuals of sacred worth” but does not approve of same-sex marriage and prohibits clergy from performing same-sex unions. He added that the church's position on the matter is currently "under debate."
Duke Divinity School is an official theological school of the United Methodist Church, though it accepts students from all religious backgrounds.
“My intent was simply to make students aware that there are many contested questions in the community,” Hays wrote in an email to The Chronicle Wednesday. “Diversity includes the diversity of traditions represented in the school, and these traditions sometimes disagree. The goal is to foster a community where these differences can be discussed charitably.”
Hays said he has invited the members of Sacred Worth, the Divinity School's LGBTQ support organization, to speak with him and they are currently working to schedule a meeting together.
Breana van Velzen, a second year divinity student and a Sacred Worth member, said that Sacred Worth members would decline to comment until their meeting with Hays.
Senior Daniel Kort, the president of Blue Devils United—the undergraduate support organization for LGBTQ students—attended Tuesday's demonstration. He said that he was not present at the orientation panel in question but noted that LGBTQ identities are often framed at odds with religious principles.
“In my experience, religious groups at Duke have done their best to uphold standards of affirming sexual and gender minorities, in accord with our non-discrimination policy,” Kort wrote in an email Wednesday. “However, I have heard stories from friends whose experiences have not been as positive.”
In his letter, Hays noted that the Divinity School is fully compliant with Duke's nondiscrimination policy, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Duke Divinity School '74, wrote in a open letter to Hayes that she found it “deeply shocking” to learn he responded to a question about LGBTQ resources by quoting from the UMC Book of Discipline.
Thistlethwaite pointed out that not only United Methodists are admitted to the Divinity School.
“You owe those students a climate of support, and an educational environment free of manifest hostility to LGBT people,” Thistlethwaite wrote.
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, senior Daniel Kort was referred to as a junior. The Chronicle regrets the error.