June July 2016
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More Religious Schools Seek Right to Discriminate Against LGBT Students

Students

With the expansion of LGBT rights, there has been a spike in the number of religiously affiliated colleges and universities seeking exemptions from federal antidiscrimination laws.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 forbids sex discrimination at any educational institution that receives federal funding, which most do in some form, be it research grants or student financial aid. But it allows any school “controlled by a religious organization” to apply for a waiver from the nondiscrimination requirement if complying with Title IX “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization.”

“These ‘right-to-discriminate’ waivers were relatively rare until the last year,” reports The Column, a Minnesota-based nonprofit LGBT news site, with “a handful” of schools seeking them to avoid putting women in leadership positions. But in 2014, the U.S. Department of Education held that Title IX’s ban on sex discrimination also banned discrimination against transgender and gender-nonconforming people, leading many more schools to apply for waivers. Also, the spread of marriage equality, now nationwide after June’s Supreme Court ruling, has conservative institutions worried they would be required to treat married same-sex couples the same as opposite-sex ones — in access to student housing, for instance.

In the past 18 months, the Department of Education has granted 27 colleges and universities waivers from Title IX compliance, The Column reports. The schools are located throughout the nation, but the majority are in the South and West. Their combined enrollment exceeds 80,000, and in 2014 they received nearly $130 million in federal research grants and student aid. As of August of this year, another nine such waivers were pending.

The schools that have been granted the exemptions include Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, Judson College in Alabama, East Texas Baptist University, Oklahoma Christian University, Spring Arbor University in Michigan, and Simpson University in California. Those with waivers pending include Biola University in California, Colorado Christian University, Ohio Christian University, and Multnomah University in Portland.

Some schools have sought the waivers so they could bar or expel transgender students, and some have targeted lesbian, gay, and bisexual students and staff as well, reports the site, which obtained the data through a Freedom of Information Act request. Many of them have used a sample policy by the Christian Legal Society.  

“The trend of religiously affiliated, but publicly financed, colleges receiving exemptions from the U.S. Department of Education in order to discriminate against LGBTQ students and employees is disturbing,” attorney Paul Southwick, who has represented students in discrimination suits, told The Column. “While we are seeing increased protections for transgender, intersex, and LGB students through Title IX, we are also seeing the protections of Title IX gutted at the very institutions where students need those protections the most.”

This is recourse, however, Southwick said. He suggested that students or staff who have experienced discrimination file an internal appeal, with the help of a lawyer if possible. “Additionally, students should file a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights,” he said. “This is important and should always be done. Even if their college has a religious exemption from Title IX, the exemption may not apply or it may not stick after being challenged.”

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