Using 'he/him,' 'she/her' in emails got 2 dorm directors fired at small New York Christian college

The firing of two employees at a religious school in western New York is fanning the flames of a culture war over how to teach about gender and sexuality in the classroom.

NEW YORK, NY (AP) - Shua Wilmot, and Raegan Zélaya, former dorm director at a small Christian college in western New York state, admit their names are unusual, explaining why they added gender identity to their email signatures.

Wilmot uses the pronoun 'he/him'. Zelaya uses'she/her'.

Houghton University (their former employer) wanted them to remove the identifiers as part of a new email format policy implemented in September. Both were fired for refusing to comply with the new policy on email formats implemented in September.

My name is Shua. It's a strange name. It ends with the vowel 'a' which is feminine in many languages. Wilmot and Zelaya said this in a video of nearly an hour they posted on YouTube after being let go by their employers last month. If you receive an email from me, but don't recognize me, you may not be able to identify my gender.

The ongoing culture wars that are raging in the U.S. about sexual preferences, gender identification and transgender issues have affected politics, schools and other aspects of public and personal life. At least 17 Republican states have restricted gender affirming health care. In some communities, debates continue about the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in school curricula. Pickets are forming outside libraries that host 'drag-story hours'.

While controversies rage on campuses with religious affiliations, others are gaining attention. More than 700 Houghton graduates signed a petition to protest the recent firings.

Seattle Pacific University is a Christian liberal-arts college in the Northwest. 16 plaintiffs have sued the school to challenge its employment policy that bars people with same-sex partners from working full-time.

LGBTQ students in New York City are fighting against the decision of Yeshiva University to ban their student-run group from campus.

Paul Southwick is the director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project. This advocacy group, which has been around for two years, advocates for LGBTQ students in publicly-funded religious colleges and universities.

He said that there was a backlash to the growth of LGBTQ rights. This backlash is not limited to "white evangelical Christianity" in the South, but also in places such as New York and Oregon, where we would have never expected it.

A federal judge dismissed earlier this year a lawsuit filed by LGBTQ students in Oregon against the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that it did not protect them from discrimination at universities with religious affiliations receiving federal funding.

Houghton University is a campus of 800 students located 60 miles (96 km) south-east of Buffalo. It offers a "Christ-centered liberal arts and science education."

The university sent a statement to The Associated Press via email on Saturday. It said that it couldn't speak publicly about personnel issues, but it 'hasn't terminated an employment contract based on the use pronouns within staff email signatures.

The university had asked its employees to remove "anything extraneous" from their email signatures, including Bible verses.

The university shared with the AP a copy of an email sent to its staff outlining their new policy. In the memo, employees were warned against using political divisive or inflammatory language in any communication bearing the Houghton brand. The memo also instructed employees to adhere to standardized signatures and prohibited the use of pronouns.

A copy of the letter that Wayne D. Lewis Jr., President of the university, sent to students was also attached to this statement.

Lewis wrote: 'I wouldn't ask you to support or agree with every decision I made.' "But I do ask you to resist the temptation to reduce Houghton’s decision-making to the simple, convenient political narratives that are popular in our day."

Zelaya received an email from administrators in the fall stating that the school would be mandating changes to colors, fonts, and other aspects of emails in order to maintain brand consistency.

She said she complied but kept her pronouns in her signature. This, she explained, was a "standard industry practice".

The university stated in the letters of dismissal that were delivered to Wilmot Zelaya and Raegan Zelaya - copies of which the two women shared on social media - that their firings resulted from their refusal to remove pronouns from email signatures, in violation of the institution's policy.

In a Facebook video, Zelaya revealed that she has already lined up another job. She and Wilmot encouraged their supporters in a joint video on YouTube to press for policy changes, but with civility and constructively.

Wilmot stated that he was able to educate the public on this issue as a direct result of the controversy.