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US organisation for LGBTQ advocacy files claim against civil-rights exemption law

13 January 2023

Nashotah House

Nashotah House Theological Seminary, Wisconsin

Nashotah House Theological Seminary, Wisconsin

MORE than 40 students from a range of Christian colleges and universities in the United States have filed a claim against the Title IX Exemption, backed by the organisation Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), which campaigns for LGBTQ students.

Title IX is a federal civil-rights law passed in 1972. It ensures protections against discrimination on the basis of sex in institutions that receive taxpayers’ money. In 2010, further guidance clarified that it also referred to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

REAP says that more than 200 taxpayer-funded religious colleges and universities in the US have claimed a federal religious exemption from following the law. These exemptions allow these institutions to ignore non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ students, while still receiving federal funding, Joe Baxter, for REAP, said.

The colleges and universities are affiliated to a range of Christian denominations. Only one college linked to the Episcopal Church, Nashotah House Theological Seminary, in Wisconsin, which is in the Catholic tradition, has filed for an exemption on the basis of its statement of identity, which says that the seminary believes that sexual relations are “appropriate only between a man and a woman who have been united in Holy Matrimony”.

A complaint of discrimination was filed in 2021 against Nashotah House by a man in a same-sex marriage who was denied admission because he was “in violation of the Seminary’s sincere religious beliefs and statement of identity”. Because of the exemption, the complaint was thrown out. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the US Department of Education confirmed Nashotah House’s exemption in November 2021.

The seminary’s Dean, Dr Garwood Anderson, said on Tuesday: “Our Title IX exemption does not interfere with our ability to welcome and support students who identify as LGBTQ. Meanwhile, our ethos at Nashotah House commits us to providing pastoral care for all our students and supporting them in every possible way.

“Compared to most other higher education institutions, we’re a rather small shop, and thus don’t have the same infrastructure — nor critical mass, frankly — for affinity groups, such as our larger peers might have. However, we’ve found our residential context naturally lends itself to the formation of friendships based on shared interests, values, and life experiences, as well as authentic friendships among students who might otherwise share very little in common.”

Mr Baxter said that the OCR routinely dismissed student complaints on the basis of lack of jurisdiction, when a Title IX exemption was in place.

The OCR, however, has launched an investigation into six Christian universities for alleged violations of the rights of LGBTQ students. One, the independent Evangelical Liberty University, has banned LGBTQ affinity clubs, same-sex displays of affection, and use of bathrooms and pronouns not corresponding to a student’s sex at birth. One of the plaintiffs in the case led by REAP, Lucas Wilson, alleges that the university ran conversion-therapy sessions, through a group, the Armor Bearers.

“Essentially, conversion therapy is part of the ‘menu’ of educational opportunities available for same-sex-attracted students ‘who accept responsibility’ for their homosexuality or homosexual behaviours,” Mr Wilson said. The therapy was offered as an alternative to disciplinary action by the university, he alleges.

Liberty, founded by the tele-evangelist Jerry Falwell, is also being sued by 12 women students who allege that the university created an environment that increased the likelihood of sexual assaults and rape, such as the student honour code the Liberty Way, which, they alleged, made it difficult to report sexual violence.

Jonathan Coley, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University, who keeps a database of policies on LGBTQ students at Christian institutions, told the Religion News Service that most Christian colleges now listed sexual orientation in their non-discrimination statements, and half included gender identity — an increase from ten years ago. While this welcomed by many, some parents and clergy complained that the approach did not align with the institution’s original mission, he said.

Tensions over LGBTQ rights have also emerged with regard to faculty staff-hiring policies. Another legal action is ongoing against Seattle Pacific University, an organisation affiliated to the Free Methodist Church. One third of the board of trustees are appointed by the Church, which bars people in same-sex relationships from full-time positions in the faculty.

The REAP class action by students is currently in the Federal District Court of Oregon, and two rulings on connected motions were expected “any day now”, Mr Baxter said.

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