This morning, I was contacted by a good friend of mine (wishing to remain anonymous, so we’ll just call her S) about some troubles going on at Bob Jones University. For those of you not familiar, Bob Jones U is a very, very conservative Christian college known for having highly legalistic rules – to the point that students can be put on something called “spiritual probation.” My friend, S., in fact, is a former student of Bob Jones who was expelled for having sex with her boyfriend – who is now her husband. And now they have unjustly expelled another student – Christopher Peterman – for exercising his first amendment right to protest, though, to hear them tell it, that’s not the case at all.
But before we get there, we have to go back up the injustice chain.
This all started with a girl named Tina Anderson. I heard about Tina a couple of years ago, back when this whole thing actually happened – it was a small story that appeared on Change.org, though it took another year or two for the national media to cotton on. Tina was 15 when she was raped by a 40-year-old member of her church. She became pregnant from this rape. She was forced – by the pastor of the church, Charles “Chuck” Phelps – to “confess” and apologize to the whole congregation for getting pregnant outside of marriage and for “being in a compromising situation” that led to getting pregnant. At the same time, the man was forced to confess to “adultery,” though no connection between the two cases was made for the congregation, and no criminal charges were brought (even though, at the very least, this was statutory rape).
Anderson was forced to move to Colorado from New Hampshire for the duration of her pregnancy, to the home of a family friend of the pastor's, and forced to give up her child for adoption when she gave birth. Last year, Tina was finally contacted by the NH police, and her rapist was charged, convicted, and sentenced (which is when the story made national headlines).
How does this connect to BJU and Chris Peterman?
Chuck Phelps, Tina’s pastor at the time who helped cover up her rape and could, reasonably, be an accomplice to a criminal act, was a board member in good standing at BJU.
Peterman, rightly, thought this was a very bad idea. My friend S writes:
A student at the school, Christopher Peterman, learned about both the case and Chuck's position as a board member, and organized a movement called Do Right, BJU (named after a famous saying from the founder of the school, "Do right until the stars fall!"). The movement was designed to pressure BJU to remove Chuck Phelps from his position on the board as well as to encourage them to start reporting sexual abuse cases as required by law, since the school has a horrendous history of covering up abuse and victim-blaming. Part of this movement culminated in the first-ever student and alumni led protest held at BJU. The administration threatened Chris with expulsion for his "insubordination," but when the media was alerted to the protest, a spokesman for the school stated that no one involved would suffer any administrative repercussions. Chuck Phelps resigned his position a few days before the protest (supposedly unrelated to the DR-BJU movement, protest, and a petition with over 1,000 signatures demanding his removal). This all happened towards the close of the fall semester of 2011
But things didn’t end there for Peterman. Even though BJU couldn’t really expel him for protesting – after all, that’s a first amendment right, and they’d had their hands tied by their own words to the media – they put him on watch.
You see, at BJU, students function on a system of demerits. You get a certain number of demerits based on infractions of the rules - 150 demerits, and you get expelled. These rules are detailed in the student handbook (PDF). The handbook itself is a piece of work, and well worth a gander – there are several sections reinforcing the idea that BJU students must submit to “God-given human authorities” (read: the BJU administration). You’re also expected to attend church twice a week in addition to Monday-Thursday chapel services (if you’re interested, you can check twitter for the hashtag #BJUHandbook, where I tweeted many of the rules).
BJU used this system of demerits to exact a punishment on Chris for protesting against Phelps. They monitored his FB and twitter feeds carefully, they placed an extra RA in his dorm to keep an eye on him. People started following him both on and off campus to look for him breaking the rules. S writes:
The dean of men would email, call, and text him at all hours, demanding to meet with him to discuss his spiritual status. I believe that he was technically on spiritual probation (meaning he had to meet regularly with an uncertified counselor for nouthetic counseling).
He went into this spring semester (2012) with 70 demerits on his record already. And it didn’t take long – of course, with all the careful watching, it’s not surprising – for him to chalk up to 145.
He went off campus and watched an episode of Glee – 50 demerits. It’s not technically banned in the rulebook, but they did it anyway.
He posted the lyrics to Matthew West’s “Only Grace” on his Facebook – 50 demerits that were then rescinded.
Posting a FB status or a Tweet – they never explained which – during class – 25 demerits.
10 days before his graduation, BJU expelled Christopher Peterman. He only had 145 demerits, but because he had contacted the organization that oversees BJU’s accreditation – assuming, at the time, that he was going to be expelled and wanting to see what recourse he had – he was summarily accused by BJU of attempting to “intimidate” the administration.
This is a bad situation turned worse. This is misuse and abuse of authority. And this is wrong. The only way we can continue to stand up against these injustices is if we do not keep silent on the matter.