Photo by George Shepherd

Emory Should Stop Supporting Glenn Church’s Homophobic Discrimination

With one major exception, Emory University has fought diligently to fulfill its Nondiscrimination Statement, which provides that “Emory cannot and will not tolerate discrimination against … any individual or group based upon … sexual orientation.” That exception is Emory’s Glenn Memorial Church, which discriminates against LGBTQ people by refusing to hire openly gay clergy and by prohibiting its clergy from marrying same-sex couples. Long a Glenn member, I tried for years to convince Glenn to abandon its bigotry. After its leadership repeatedly refused, I resigned in protest.

Glenn’s discrimination is a stain on Emory because the university is inextricably intertwined with Glenn, supporting Glenn in two ways. First, Emory permits Glenn to occupy two of Emory’s iconic buildings: the Glenn sanctuary and the education building. Looming over the gate to the university, the Glenn sanctuary is Emory’s face. The backgrounds of countless photos of gowned graduates posing atop the marble Emory sign next to the entry gate include the Glenn sanctuary’s columns and steeple. For many in the community, the Glenn buildings are Emory.

Second, Glenn church is enmeshed with Emory because of Emory’s lavish support for Glenn — support that is far more substantial than Emory allowing other religious groups to share Emory’s small Cannon Chapel. Emory provides Glenn with the sole occupancy of two of Emory’s signature buildings rent-free. In addition, Emory pays for the sanctuary building’s maintenance. The maintenance expenses for this large, aging building have been substantial, including recent renovations of the roof and interior. The subsidy of free rent and free maintenance likely has a combined annual value of more than $1 million.

I, along with Nathan Hartman, an Emory alumnus who also left Glenn in protest, pointed out Glenn’s discrimination to Emory. I was delighted that Emory’s representative, Dean Jan Love of Emory’s Theology School, responded that Emory, in line with its Nondiscrimination Statement, would not tolerate homophobic discrimination. However, she declined to act against Glenn because Glenn’s leadership had misled her into concluding that Glenn did not discriminate.

It is not surprising that Glenn’s leadership was able to deceive Dean Love. Glenn has long concealed its discrimination. Glenn’s central statement of purpose, which since 2014 has appeared both on its website and in the printed program that congregants receive at all services, falsely promises that Glenn will not discriminate: “We welcome all persons into the full life and ministry of our congregation, regardless of … sexual orientation, [or] gender identity.” Likewise, Glenn recently offered a “Pride Prayer Service,” and regularly plasters itself with rainbow Pride flags.

Saddened at Glenn’s false denials, I provided Dean Love with detailed evidence of Glenn’s choice to strictly enforce discriminatory policies. I demonstrated that Glenn has discriminated against LGBTQ people for 48 years. In 1974, the United Methodist Church, of which Glenn is a member, established homophobic policies in its Book of Discipline, which both barred its pastors from officiating same-sex marriages and prohibited its churches from hiring pastors or associate pastors who were openly gay. As indicated on the UMC’s website, “Pastors may not be ‘self-avowed, practicing homosexuals’ and may not conduct ceremonies that celebrate same-sex weddings or unions.”

For the last 48 years, Glenn Church has chosen to enforce these policies completely and to the letter. Glenn’s pastors have chosen never to officiate a same-sex wedding, and despite having a staff of five or so pastors, Glenn has chosen never to hire an openly gay pastor.

It is no excuse that the UMC rules ask Glenn to be homophobic. Glenn can choose whether to comply and has been making the wrong choice for 48 years. Glenn has continued to enforce the UMC’s bigoted policies, even as other Methodist churches across the country have stood up against these policies to allow LGBTQ equality and inclusion. One such inclusive UMC church is St. Mark UMC, four miles away in Midtown Atlanta, which marries same-sex couples and has hired an openly gay pastor. Other Methodist churches in Georgia, such as Asbury Memorial Church in Savannah, have refused to obey the UMC’s homophobic policies by disaffiliating from the UMC. If Emory permits Glenn to choose to continue to discriminate, then Emory and Glenn are choosing to collaborate with homophobia.

Since 2019, I repeatedly petitioned Glenn’s leadership, including Senior Pastor Mark Westmoreland, to join other UMC churches in engaging in civil disobedience against these offensive policies. Every time, I was met with a firm refusal to end the discrimination. The senior pastor has made clear, both in private conversations and in communications that included many church members — both orally and via email — that he is interested in neither disobeying the UMC’s homophobic policies himself nor permitting other associate pastors to disobey them.

More than two years ago, Glenn’s leadership promised to “fight like hell for change from within.” No change has occurred; Glenn is still discriminating. The senior pastor now proposes that Glenn wait for the UMC to change its policies, or for the denomination to split. There is no guarantee that this will happen soon, or at all. Developments in international churches suggest that some hoped-for grand compromise may occur only after many years, if ever.

It is a lapse of Emory’s sterling values both to allow a group that inflicts explicit discrimination to occupy its iconic structures at Emory’s gates, and to support and subsidize the discriminatory group with free rent and maintenance. By subsidizing Glenn and welcoming it, Emory associates itself with Glenn and is complicit in Glenn’s homophobia.

Although I have not yet heard back from Dean Love, I hope and expect that Emory will soon require Glenn to comply with Emory’s admirable nondiscrimination pledge by ending its bigotry. Only then will Emory begin to cleanse itself of the stench of intolerance.

George Shepherd is a Professor of Law at Emory.