How will the same-sex marriage ruling affect colleges and universities?

Tax-exempt status may be under threat

In the wake of Friday's Supreme Court decision that states must authorize same-sex marriages, some colleges will see almost no change while others worry about dire financial consequences.

The ruling has little effect on the policies of most colleges. Same-sex couples who had received benefits for cohabiting could lose their benefits if they choose not to get married. Schools in states that had not legalized same-sex marriage before the ruling may be able to recruit students who otherwise would have studied out-of-state in more progressive locations. LGBT professors and staff will now have an easier time moving between institutions in different states. 

However, for many evangelical Christian colleges, the ruling represents an existential threat.

Many of these schools ban same-sex relationships among both employees and students. Some legal scholars now say Friday's ruling could have major implications for those policies, as well as for the schools' tax-exempt status, housing rules, hiring practices, and accreditation.

Not all religious institutions face this problem—many, like the Catholic University of Notre Dame, offer equal health benefits to same-sex partners of employees, in spite of the Catholic church's opposition to same-sex marriage.

The Supreme Court did not settle the issue on Friday, but comments by two judges mentioned it—and left the door open for legal challenges.

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Seventy leaders representing Christian educational institutions wrote to Congress requesting a law protecting their policies on LGBT people. Many of the schools "simply could not afford to operate" without the tax exemption, said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a signer of the letter.

In a statement Friday, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities affirmed that these policies fall under the protection of the First Amendment. "It stands to reason, then," read the statement, "that the tax-exempt status and religious hiring rights of religious institutions will be protected when they advance the religious mission of a college or university" (Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 6/29; Bernhard/McIntire, Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/26).

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