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American Bible Society to employees: Abstain from sex outside marriage or resign

The Philly-based nonprofit's employees must agree to the new policy - which also defines marriage as only between a man and a woman - or resign.

The American Bible Society is headquartered next to Independence Mall in Philadelphia. A new policy is stirring backlash among some staff members.
The American Bible Society is headquartered next to Independence Mall in Philadelphia. A new policy is stirring backlash among some staff members.Read moreMichael Boren / Staff

The American Bible Society, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that translates and distributes Bibles around the world, wants employees to agree to abstain from sex outside marriage — or resign.

In a policy recently made public, the organization also defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. That means LGBT employees could be disqualified from working at the nonprofit. So could sexually active straight employees who live with a partner but are not married.

Employees who don't commit to the terms by Jan. 1, 2019, will be told to resign. The policy is a shift for the organization, which previously did not require staffers to abide by such an agreement.

Up to nine employees have already left, according to a current staffer who has worked at the nonprofit for more than a decade and would be affected because she lives with a partner outside of marriage.

"It's pretty much like a firing squad going around," said the employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was concerned the nonprofit would reprimand her for speaking publicly. She said she is looking for other jobs: "You're being forced to fire yourself."

The policy was announced to employees in December, but it came into the news this week when the Religion News Service reported on it.

The Bible Society defended the policy, known as the "Affirmation of Biblical Community."

"We realize everyone must live by his or her own conscience and understanding of what God calls his people to do," Roy Peterson, the nonprofit's president and CEO, said in a statement. "If staff members disagree with the Affirmation of Biblical Community, thus choosing to seek employment elsewhere, we will support their decision and continue to treat them with respect and care in their transition."

Peterson added that the nonprofit enacted the policy "because we believe a staff made up of people with a deep and personal connection to the Bible will bring unity and clarity as we continue our third century of ministry."

The employee who spoke to the Inquirer and Daily News on Wednesday said staffers had generally signed a core values statement that emphasized principles such as unity and integrity, but nothing that primarily affected LGBT and unmarried staffers. The nonprofit's new policy, she said, is much more extreme.

The policy is carefully worded. It does not mention LGBT people but says:

I will seek to refrain from sexual activity outside of the marriage covenant prescribed and exemplified in the Bible: "a man will leave his father and mother and unite with his wife, and the two will become one," symbolizing the relationship between Christ and His Church (Matthew 19:5; Ephesians 5:31).

The policy also states:

I will seek to treat all persons with love and respect, even if I disagree with their values, attitudes, and behaviors (1 Peter 2:17; Matthew 7:12).

Philadelphia has a law that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation. Whether the society's policy violates that law, however, is complicated.

The law, known as the fair practices ordinance, has an exemption for religious institutions that hire people to perform work connected with religious activities. According to that exemption:

It shall not be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to express a preference on the basis of religion, sex, or national origin in those certain instances where religion, sex, or national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise.

No one has filed a complaint against the Bible Society with the city's Commission on Human Relations, which enforces the law.

The Bible Society, founded in 1816, is headquartered across from Independence Mall near Fifth and Market Streets. It announced last year it was building a $60 million center across from the Mall devoted to the importance and influence of the Bible in American life.