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Baylor University Gets Exemption From LGBTQ-Related Sexual Harassment Ban

Baylor University Gets Exemption From LGBTQ-Related Sexual Harassment Ban

Baylor University

The conservative Christian school didn't like the expansion of Title IX's sexual harassment regulation to include anti-LGBTQ+ harassment.

The U.S. Department of Education has affirmed the exemption of Baylor University, a conservative Christian school, from certain antidiscrimination requirements after LGBTQ+ students submitted complaints of harassment.

The Religious Exemption Accountability Project filed the complaint with the DOE’s civil rights office in 2021 on behalf of Veronica Bonifacio Penales. Penales, a queer woman who graduated from Baylor in May, said that while she was a student at the school, based in Waco, Texas, she was frequently harassed by fellow students and the university did nothing about it, The Texas Tribune reports.

Sticky notes with anti-LGBTQ+ slurs were left on the door to her dorm room, and students put homophobic posts on social media, she said. She also said Baylor’s policy opposing same-sex relationships forced her to hide her identity. She argued that these actions violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a law that bans sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, in educational programs that receive federal funding.

At least three other LGBTQ+ Baylor students have filed complaints as well. These mention Baylor’s denial of an official charter to an LGBTQ+ student group, Gamma Alpha Upsilon, although it did charter another, and “alleged pressure on university media” to avoid covering LGBTQ+ events, according to the Waco Tribune-Herald.

The DOE issued a notice in 2021 that it would consider anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination to be covered under the ban on sex discrimination, but a federal judge has temporarily blocked that interpretation as a lawsuit against it proceeds.

Schools that are religiously affiliated can receive an exemption from Title IX requirements. Baylor has what officials call a “special relationship” with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, part of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention.

In May, Baylor President Linda Livingstone asked the DOE to dismiss complaints by Penales and others on the grounds that the university “affirms the biblical understanding of sexuality as a gift from God,” to the exclusion of same-sex relationships, according to various media reports. Baylor should be exempt from Title IX requirements that go against its beliefs, she said. The DOE sent a response in late July recognizing several religious exemptions, including one from the sexual harassment regulation.

This is the first time religious exemptions have covered harassment, the Religious Exemption Accountability Project reports. “This unprecedented move makes Baylor unsafe for LGBTQIA+ students and is truly shocking,” Paul Carlos Southwick, the group’s director, said in a press release. “For the first time in Title IX’s history, a federally funded university has been given special permission, by the Biden administration no less, to allow its LGBTQIA+ students to be sexually harassed. Any reasonable person can see that this coddling of religious extremists has gone too far.”

“I am saddened by Baylor’s lack of integrity and accountability to their students,” Penales said in the release. “I know many will not feel safe returning to campus, and rightfully so. If Baylor believes it has a religious liberty right to allow us to be harassed, there truly are no protections left for us.”

The DOE did not make a decision on whether to dismiss Perales’s complaint and others. However, Southwick said dismissal is likely.

Lori Fogleman, Baylor’s assistant vice president of media and public relations, issued a statement to the Waco paper saying that media reports have been misleading about the nature of the exemptions. The university has not received a broad exemption from sexual harassment regulations, she said.

“Instead, Baylor is responding to current considerations by the U.S. Department of Education to move to an expanded definition of sexual harassment, which could infringe on Baylor’s rights under the U.S. Constitution, as well as Title IX, to conduct its affairs in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs,” the statement reads. “Baylor has taken and will continue to take meaningful steps to ensure members of the LGBTQ community are loved, cared for and protected as a part of the Baylor Family. Further, the University remains committed to promoting and maintaining an educational environment in which students can learn and grow in accordance with our Christian mission and our call to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

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