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."
Patrick Henry issued its ultimatum to Hunley after he inserted fliers into student mailboxes in September advertising the Purcellville Church of Christ, where he worships. The brochures made clear that members believe that baptism is essential for salvation.
Although most of Patrick Henry's students and faculty members -- perhaps all -- have been baptized, they believe the act is a symbol of obedience to God and not essential to be saved, Farris said.
When school administrators saw Hunley's fliers, they told him his beliefs were out of step with the school's statement of faith. Hunley said he agreed to resign because he needed the eight weeks' severance pay to pay rent on his home in Hamilton. Before resigning, however, he engaged in a spiraling doctrinal debate with administrators.
Hunley said the wording of the school's statement could be interpreted to encompass his views. Administrators disagreed. The parties also sparred over what it takes to be a Christian.
In May, Hunley wrote a letter to parents of Patrick Henry students, contending that his forced resignation showed "obvious religious discrimination against born-again Christians."
"Given the option of denying Christ or losing my job, I chose the latter," he wrote. "No Christian would deny Christ to save his job; certainly no Christian would ask him to do so."
School officials thought the letter violated the terms of Hunley's separation. He had agreed he would not disparage the school. The college sued him. Last month, a Loudoun County judge sided with Patrick Henry, forbidding Hunley from ever speaking badly about the school or engaging in conduct not in its best interest.
"I'm sorry religious differences have come this far," Judge James H. Chamblin said before his ruling. "It's kind of a microcosm of what's going on in the world today . . . about how fanatical some people can be about religion."
Farris said that far from fanaticism or religious hairsplitting, the conflict with Hunley goes to the heart of what his school is about.
The point of Patrick Henry is to provide a broad liberal-arts education, but in an environment where everyone agrees on certain essentials, Farris said. A staff member who doubts those underlying truths -- and perhaps shares those doubts with students -- erodes the school's founding purpose, he said. A student who questioned the Trinity would be dismissed. If Hunley had not resigned over the baptism issue, he would have been fired, Farris said.
"If people thought that we were compromising on what we believe in, we couldn't attract anyone," he said.
One group that the school might have trouble attracting is other members of the Church of Christ. Hunley said members of his church are shocked by the situation.
"If you read things about the school, it appears to be something that Christians can really get behind, especially those who believe that politics is a way to advance the fundamental Christian values," he said in an interview. People have been "absolutely dumbfounded, unable to believe that this school, for which most people have so much expectations from, would do something so ridiculous," he added.
At Hunley's court hearing, Farris read letters from members of the church, who wrote to say they were withholding support from the college based on the librarian's allegations.
Farris's school needs acceptance from the mainstream halls of power if it is to fulfill its ambitious agenda, said Mark J. Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University. That is what the school risks when it engages in a public doctrinal dispute with a former employee, said Rozell, who wrote a book on the religious right in Virginia, devoting a chapter to Farris's unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor in 1993.
"He's been very open about his goal to make this institution politically powerful," Rozell said of Farris. "If he wants the place to be a more powerful player, it has to be a little more open. It's hard to broaden the reach and the political impact by taking a very narrow line theologically."
But Farris said his graduates, well-spoken and well-educated, will be perfectly capable of proving they can form political coalitions with all kinds of people. He cited his own background as a attorney, saying he represented families of different religious backgrounds seeking the right to home-school.
"If people look into my case, they will see I'm utterly committed to the proposition of religious liberty," he said. "But when I'm in my own church, I teach what I believe. When I'm in a Christian college, I teach what I believe."