Divide on Doctrine Fuels Fight Between Va. College, Ousted Clerk
Monday, August 8, 2005
For two years, Jeremy Hunley sorted magazines and shelved books as a library clerk at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville.
He enjoyed the work, thought the recently founded college's students were smart and polite and believed in the mission of the school: to mold academic superstars into Christian leaders. A born-again Christian himself, Hunley said he felt at home.
That is, up until the day last year when he was told to resign or be fired. The reason: He believes baptism is essential for salvation.
College administrators told Hunley, a member of the Church of Christ, that the belief put him at odds with the school's statement of faith, which he was required to sign before taking the job. According to the 10-point document, salvation is found only through faith in Jesus Christ.
Patrick Henry was founded in 2000 to be an Ivy League-type college aimed at attracting academically gifted home-schoolers. The school's president talks unabashedly of birthing a new generation of conservative leaders who will reclaim the country from years of liberal sway. It is a bold mission that has attracted national attention.
Skeptics, however, suggested that the ouster of a low-level evangelical employee over theological differences could spell trouble for the school, spotlighting an exclusionary attitude that could turn off prospective students and make employers wary of graduates.
The college's president and founder, Michael P. Farris -- a lawyer, home-schooling advocate and Baptist minister -- insisted that the opposite is true. He said Hunley's forced resignation is proof that the school will not compromise on the fundamental religious beliefs that drive its mission and ultimately will determine its success.
"One of the most common questions I'm asked as I promote the college to people is, 'How are you going to prevent Patrick Henry from becoming like Harvard, which started off as a strong Christian school and look at it today?' " he said. "I think for better or for worse, the battle with Jeremy Hunley was one of our first tests of whether we're going to stick to what we believe or not."
In the five years since the school was founded, Patrick Henry's student body has grown to 300. The average SAT score of its freshmen has risen, last year to 1,307. Graduates have gone on to plum jobs on Capitol Hill and in the White House.
The school's fight with its 26-year-old library clerk, which led to a court ruling, sheds light on the lengths to which Farris will go to maintain the purity of his vision, said John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Green said evangelical Christianity's recent political successes have come by agreeing to put aside the movement's long-standing internal theological conflicts to unite for larger goals.
"What this dispute shows is, these problems still exist and potentially they could seriously limit the mission of Patrick Henry," said Green, who is a professor at the University of Akron. "There might be many different kinds of evangelicals who wouldn't feel comfortable attending or vice versa. It could be a problem for them."