Front view of the chapel tower at Duke University. Duke's president joined other university leaders in calling for the United Methodist Church to be more inclusive of LGBTQ people. (iStock)

Nearly 100 university presidents are urging the United Methodist Church to be more inclusive of gay and transgender people, issuing a joint statement in the weeks before church leaders plan to meet to discuss LGBTQ issues.

The global United Methodist Church has been debating gay equality for years, with widely differing perspectives in the many countries with Methodist congregations. Church leaders are to meet in February to discuss policy toward members of the LGBTQ community.

For U.S. colleges affiliated with the Methodist Church, the issue is clear. “The presidents of the Methodist institutions have felt strongly that we are inclusive communities,” said Scott Miller, president of Virginia Wesleyan University. Their mission statements reflect those values, he said. “It’s our mission and purpose to serve our population as a whole.”

“This is a pivotal moment in the Methodist Church and a pivotal moment in Methodist higher education,” said Miller, a lifelong Methodist who has been a college president for nearly three decades. He said he began advocating for a more inclusive church in the mid-1990s, but the church kept putting off making changes.

The National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church represents 93 schools, including such well-known institutions as Duke University and Southern Methodist University, and educates more than 260,000 students.

“Historically, the Church has witnessed a profound commitment to the sacred worth of all persons and to social justice, such as the Church’s position on civil rights, women’s rights, and the rights of different ethnic communities,” the university leaders wrote, calling for new policies “to affirm full inclusion in the life and ministry of the United Methodist Church of all persons regardless of their race, ethnicity, creed, national origin, gender, gender identity/expression or sexual orientation.”

This is the fourth time the group has issued such a call for inclusivity. The group issued its first such appeal in 2006.

American University has always celebrated its “Methodist values of a love of learning, service to others, and inclusion for all,” President Sylvia Matthews Burwell said in a written statement, and they support the statement “and embrace the human dignity of all regardless of their race, creed, gender, gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, or national origin.”