Professor Loses Job Over Divorce

Wheaton College takes the Bible seriously: students and professors must sign a "covenant" pledging to lead their lives in accordance with Christian teaching.

So when Kent Gramm, a popular English professor at the Illinois school for 20 years, violated scriptures and skirted school rules, he had to go.

Gramm will be leaving the school because he got a divorce.

News of his impending departure has led to a campuswide debate over whether divorce — now as common in America as intact marriages — should be grounds for dismissal, and just how much employers may intrude into the personal lives of employees.

Both Gramm and the college were reluctant to speak with ABC NEWS about the professor's departure.

"This has just been really tough on my family and I'm no longer going to speak about it," Gramm said.

The school has employed divorced professors in the past, but faculty members must explain the reason for their divorce to determine if it's allowable according to New Testament tenets.

"I think it's wrong to have to discuss your personal life with your employer," Gramm told the Chicago Tribune Tuesday, "and I also don't want to be in a position of accusing my spouse, so I declined to appeal or discuss the matter in any way with my employer."

Sarah Clark, a spokesperson for the 3,000-student Christian liberal arts college outside Chicago, said the school would no longer be speaking about Gramm's departure. She did confirm that others in the past had been fired for divorces the college deemed unjustified.

On Thursday, she called ABC News to say that technically, the professor quit before action could be taken to dismiss him, which would have included a hearing on the matter.

According to the Tribune, school officials defend the rule based on teachings from Matthew 19 and writings by the Apostle Paul. The bible is open to interpretation on divorce but doesn't prohibit it. Valid reasons cited in scripture mainly focus on sexual indiscretion.

Gramm was given a year to find another job, but decided to leave now, he told the Tribune.

The student body is divided on his departure. Students told ABC NEWS they're torn between wanting to see a beloved professor remain on campus and maintaining the traditions that brought them to the college in the first place.

Gramm had been married for 20 years to his wife Lynelle.

"Many of us support the school and Dr. Gramm," said Tim George, 21, the student body president. "We respect Dr. Gramm because he is an amazing professor, but we respect the school's policy because it is based on the rules which guide our lives."

George said students had been debating Gramm's departure, but that demonstrations remained confined to one pro-Gramm editorial in the school newspaper and a petition set up online through Facebook.

George studied under Gramm, taking a class on Mark Twain which he called "life-changing."

Much of the campus-wide debate centers on where the line between one's personal and professional life should be drawn when living in a Christian community.

"I think there is a line between the personal and professional," George said. "Dr. Gramm has every right not to talk and I support his decision. At the same time Wheaton is a Christian community. If one member of community is unwilling to talk about his personal life, then how are others excepted to help him."

Emma Van Hoozer, a 20-year-old junior theology major, said people's personal lives need to be made public to keep them accountable.

"In our culture divorce doesn't seem serious because we're so used to seeing it, but when you read scripture, you realize we should be much more shocked. We should stop and realize its seriousness," she said. "To be a Christian community, everything needs be public so we can be accountable to each other. The rule seems to be pretty fair because [Gramm] had the chance explain himself."

Generally, discrimination even at a private college is illegal under federal law, said Michael Gold, a professor of labor law at Cornell University, but there is an exception for religious beliefs.

"Title VII specifically exempts religious institutions, including colleges," Gold said. "Thus, Wheaton was free to enforce its religious beliefs against the professor."

According to the school's Web site: "Wheaton College complies with federal and state requirements for non-discrimination on the basis of handicap, sex, race, color, national or ethnic origin in admission and access to its programs and activities."

The disclaimer does not, however, mention religion.

"To not include 'religion' in that statement was clearly intentional," Gold said.

If the school is free to impose its beliefs on divorced family members where does the law draw the line? Could the school just as easily impose arranged marriages?

It's possible, says Gold.

"I would think so, but it's an informed guess. The prohibition of religious discrimination in the statute [Title VII] doesn't apply to the college. So if the religion requires arranged marriages, the college may insist that faculty and students submit to arranged marriages. One who did not wish to submit would be free to attend or teach at another college."

That, presumably, is what Gramm plans to do.

This story was clarified after its original posting to include an additional comment by the Wheaton College spokeswoman.