Did you know that it’s legal for religious colleges to discriminate against LGBT students? I certainly didn’t, at least not until Campus Pride, an organization advocating for the rights of LGBT students, published its “Shame List” last month. The list, of 102 colleges, enumerates “the absolute worst campuses for LGBTQ youth.”
The list “sheds light on the harmful religion-based bigotry perpetuated against LGBTQ youth on these campuses,” says Shane Windmeyer, the group’s executive director. To qualify, a school must have received and/or applied for a Title IX exemption to discriminate against LGBT youth or demonstrated a history of anti-gay actions, programs or practices.
According to Windmeyer, “it is an unspoken secret in higher education how [some colleges] use religion as a tool for cowardice and discrimination.”
But how could this discrimination be legal? I wondered. The answer goes back to 1972 and Title IX, the federal law originally enacted to level the playing field for young women. Schools could not discriminate based on sex or they’d lose federal funding; a narrow exemption was permitted for certain schools that applied for a waiver based on religious tenets. Since 2014, when the U.S. Department of Education expanded the scope of Title IX to include sexual orientation and gender identity, there’s been a surge in waiver requests by Christian colleges, BuzzFeed reported, with Education Department data. These growing requests — two under President George W. Bush to more than 60 currently — specifically seek the right to discriminate against gay and lesbian students, with the transgender community most often the target.
In fact, no Title IX exemption request has ever been denied, according to an Education Department staff member who requested anonymity because of strict rules against speaking to the media. This is because of Title IX’s overly broad language that gives the department little discretion to deny waiver requests, which can only be changed by Congress.
Like many high school seniors, one of my nephews (who is gay and from a Christian family) is applying to colleges this fall. The last thing I’d want is for him, or any LGBT student, to wind up on one of these campuses. So I was glad to hear about the Shame List published after the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights released a list of colleges, information not previously public, that had applied for or been granted a waiver. This is a huge step toward transparency, and it provides students and parents critical information during the college-application season.
Perhaps you’re thinking, as I first did: Why shouldn’t religious schools be permitted to practice what they preach? Isn’t this about religious freedom? As it turns out, a “very significant majority of [these schools] receive federal funding, either direct funding for different programs as well as through student aid,” Ian Thompson, an American Civil Liberties Union legislative representative who focuses on LGBT issues, said. In short, although religious freedom is a core value of this country, our taxpayer dollars are being used to fund colleges that rely on their religious principles to practice discrimination.
Here’s a deeply unsettling example: In 2014, according to BuzzFeed, Spring Arbor University wrote the Education Department, “requesting exemption on religious grounds from Title IX . . . to allow the University religious freedom to discriminate on the basis of sex, including gender identity, and sexual orientation, in regard to housing, living arrangements, restroom, locker rooms, and athletics.”
In the previous year, Spring Arbor received $23 million in federal funds, according to the Education Department. If schools want to engage in sex discrimination, the federal government should not fund it with taxpayer dollars, Thompson said. I could not agree more.
Unfortunately, even without a waiver, schools that discriminate against LGBT students exist. Donald Scherschligt, who is Christian and gay, graduated a few months ago from Santa Barbara, Calif.’s Westmont College, which describes itself as a “Christian, liberal arts” school. During a phone call, the English major told me he read in the student handbook that Westmont prohibits what’s called “homosexual practice.” But as he discovered, Westmont didn’t just ban the “practice” of homosexuality (it requires celibacy) — he also found “a deafening silence regarding LGBTQ issues on campus” not to mention being attacked with biblical scripture “that degrade[d] my very existence, my dignity and human worth.”
During Scherschligt ’s freshmen year the isolation and sense of persecution mounted, and he found himself “suffer[ing] from depression that culminated in a suicide attempt.” His struggle is far from unique. As Windmeyer confirmed, “LGBTQ young people face high rates of harassment and violence, especially our trans youth and [those] of color.”
Civilities reached out to Westmont about the student handbook. Nancy L. Phinney, a communications director, replied via email: “The college is committed to providing a learning and work environment free of harassment, and we regard any denigration, slurs, hate or hostility directed to the LGBTQ community as a serious violation of our Community Life Standards.”
Religious conflict can make life even more difficult for these young people. A 2009 report from the American Psychological Association found that the struggle to reconcile an anti-gay faith with an LGBT identity had dire mental-health consequences, including anxiety, panic disorders, depression and suicidality.
I’ve already alerted my nephew to the Shame List and Campus Pride’s top LGBT-friendly campuses, and I hope that other LGBT students and their parents consult similar resources as they consider their college options. There’s no reason for anyone in the Class of 2021 to spend their college years in shame — or worse, at risk of suffering, as Scherschligt said, “from all sorts of mental-health issues that will plague them for years.”
I thought we were past all that. I see I was wrong.
Email questions to Civilities at firstname.lastname@example.org (unfortunately, not all questions can be answered). You can reach him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on Sept. 27 at 1 p.m.