Debra McGee taught at Northwest Christian University for 12 years until she was “unhired” last September. McGee alleges the school discontinued her employment because she’s gay and her marriage with her spouse goes against a statement in the school’s new employee handbook. The school contests this.
The new handbook, which the school began using in April of 2017, has a specific passage about the university’s beliefs on “sexual ethics.”
“Notwithstanding dialogue and debate, as a university that strives to be like Christ, we affirm the sanctity of the bond of marriage,” the handbook reads. “Our understanding of marriage as the singularly appropriate context for sexual intimacy is rooted in the Genesis account of creation, reflected in the teachings of Jesus Christ, and maintained consistently throughout Scripture and in the history of the Church. It therefore forms the basis and foundation for the expectation we set for our university community.”
Passages in Genesis mention marriage being between a man and a woman.
Along with McGee’s complaints, NCU is facing legal action from another former employee. Johnny Lake, a former instructor with the school, filed a lawsuit in April of this year claiming he was fired due to racial discrimination, according to court records.
McGee began teaching in NCU’s Education and Counseling department in 2005 as a part-time adjunct professor — a professor not on a tenure track, therefore without a long-term contract. Since she was in an adjunct position, McGee says, she was hired term-to-term, so about a week or two before classes started she would check in with her department on the students she would be teaching along with other logistics.
McGee says she contacted Kathy Owen, her department’s assistant dean, to check in on teaching for the term when she got the news that she would no longer be employed by NCU.
“She said that there were no complaints and that everyone loves my work,” McGee says. “She just said that I was not on the list of people they could hire.”
She says Owen told her it was because she had not signed the new “Employee’s Statement of Understanding” to accompany the new employee handbook.
Since the school didn’t hire her over the summer, McGee was not checking her employee email as, she says, her students all have her personal email and phone number for the summer months. She also said no one from the school had attempted to contact her other than through her employee email to tell her about the new employee handbook and statement.
After hearing about it, McGee read the handbook and the statement, but still decided against signing it.
The statement McGee was supposed to sign noted that she not only received, read and understood the employee handbook, but that she had to be “living in compliance” with it.
“I wasn’t going to sign their piece of paper without talking to them,” she says. “I didn’t think it was ethical for a gay woman married to another woman to sign something saying she was living in compliance with Genesis.”
McGee says she attempted to talk to Owen about the situation but that Owen said she could not speak with McGee about the handbook and that she would have to talk with Gene De Young, the school’s vice president for finance and administration.
McGee says she then tried to contact De Young via email multiple times to have a conversation about the handbook, with no reply.
When she finally received an email back from De Young, it stated: “I received your message requesting a conversation about an adjunct position in the school counseling program. NCU has no positions open for adjuncts in that program to warrant a discussion.”
McGee says that is the only contact she’s had with staff at the school.
Eugene Weekly attempted to contact both Owen and De Young, but received no response. EW did, however, talk with Patrick Walsh, NCU’s senior director of marketing and communications.
Walsh says McGee was not hired back on at NCU due to not fully renewing her contract as an adjunct professor, not because of her sexual orientation.
“Debra was a part-time contract employee,” Walsh says. “It’s my understanding that she did not fill out the paperwork to renew her contract.”
He adds: “The thought that we’re afraid of homosexuals is ridiculous. NCU was founded 123 years ago on biblical principles, and we’re a community that holds each other accountable to these principles.”
Walsh says the employee handbook and statement are not new additions to what the school normally does. “They’re updated regularly,” he says. “In terms of this employee statement, this was added for clarity in terms of what the expectations already were. That’s not new information; it was just put into writing.”
Whether McGee’s “unhiring” was due to her sexual orientation or not, according to Oregon law it’s perfectly legal.
Oregon statute 659A.006, subsection five, reads: “It is not an unlawful employment practice for a bona fide church or other religious institution to take any employment action based on a bona fide religious belief about sexual orientation.”
This statute applies to “employment positions in a nonprofit religious school” such as NCU.
The city of Eugene does have a Human Rights Code that states it is against the law to discriminate against someone in employment due to their sexual orientation. However, municipal code can be pre-empted, or overruled, by state law.
According to the city’s community relations director, Laura Hammond, that city code has never been preempted by the state before.
McGee says she is checking in with the Eugene Human Rights Commission and other organizations to see if there are any avenues in which she could “take action to prevent future unfair employment practices by NCU.”
“It’s not the way I thought I would retire,” McGee says. “This is the first time I feel like I was seriously discriminated against as a gay person.”