Dozens of religious colleges have sought exemptions in recent years from federal prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, saying the waivers are needed to protect school policies consistent with their faith, according to a new report.
The government has granted more than 30 of these requests since 2013, the Human Rights Campaign said in a report released Friday. The schools that obtained religious waivers from the anti-discrimination law known as Title IX ranged from Baptist-affiliated Anderson University in South Carolina to Quaker-affiliated George Fox University in Oregon.
HRC, which supports civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, said its report shows a pattern of “hidden discrimination” against LGBT students in housing, admissions and other aspects of campus life.
The findings are based on correspondence between colleges and the Department of Education obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
“There is an alarming and growing trend of schools quietly seeking the right to discriminate against LGBT students, and not disclosing that information publicly,” said HRC President Chad Griffin. “We believe that religious liberty is a bedrock principle of our nation, however faith should never be used as a guise for discrimination. Prospective students and their parents deserve greater transparency, and we urge the Department of Education to take action by helping to increase accountability and to ensure that no student unknowingly enrolls in a school that intends to discriminate against them.”
On Friday, eight U.S. senators urged the Obama administration to publish religious waiver requests on a Web site to help keep students informed as they make decisions about where to go to college. Transparency “will ensure that institutions controlled by religious organizations publicly account for their motives and justifications for seeking these waivers,” the lawmakers wrote. Those who signed were Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, as well as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and six other Senate Democrats.
Enacted in 1972, Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex at any school that receives federal funding. But it contains an exception for any educational institution controlled by a religious organization if enforcement of the law conflicts with “the religious tenets” of the organization.
That exception enables religious colleges to seek waivers shielding them from certain mandates under Title IX. More are doing so in recent years as LGBT issues have gained prominence.
At George Fox, a transgender male student was denied a request to live in male housing with his friends, according to news reports last year. The 3,900-student university requested a Title IX exemption in March 2014.
Robin Baker, the university president, wrote in the request that the government had recently ordered a California school district to allow “a female student presenting herself as male to use the restroom, locker room and living accommodations of her choice. … We would not be able to make similar accommodations consistent with our religious beliefs.” The exemption was granted on May 23, 2014.
Subsequently, George Fox developed a new position statement on gender identity issues.
“Given the varying circumstances of students identifying as transgender, addressing their particular needs will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, prioritizing the well-being of the individual and community alike,” the statement says. “To ensure the privacy and well-being of all George Fox students, housing units with private restrooms and living spaces will be provided for students identifying as transgender where possible.
“With approval and consistent with housing policy, this may include living in a room in a shared house (or appropriate apartment) on campus with a student’s legally recognized gender, provided housemates/apartment mates have agreed to such an arrangement.”
In North Carolina, Belmont Abbey College also requested an exemption. The Catholic school, with nearly 1,600 students, is owned by the Southern Benedictine Society of North Carolina, whose members are monks.
“We do not … support or affirm the resolution of tension between one’s biological sex and the experience of gender by the adoption of a psychological identity discordant with one’s birth sex, nor attempts to change one’s birth sex by surgical intervention, nor conduct or dress consistent with an identity other than one’s biological birth sex,” Belmont Abbey President William K. Thierfelder wrote on Jan. 16. “We will make institutional decisions in light of this policy regarding housing, student admission and retention, appropriate conduct, employment, hiring and retention, and other matters.”
The department granted the request on Feb. 11.
In all, HRC found that 56 schools requested some type of religious exemption from the department’s interpretations of Title IX since 2013. The department granted 33 exemptions related to protections from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and 23 related to protections from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The following schools received sexual orientation enforcement exemptions, according to the report:
- Anderson University of South Carolina
- Baptist College of Florida
- Bethel College of Indiana
- Blue Mountain College of Mississippi
- Charleston Southern University of South Carolina
- Covenant College of Georgia
- East Texas Baptist University of Texas
- Hannibal-LaGrange University of Missouri
- Howard Payne University of Texas
- Judson College of Alabama
- Louisiana College
- Mississippi College
- North Greenville University of South Carolina
- Oklahoma Baptist University
- Oklahoma Christian University
- Southwest Baptist University of Missouri
- Spring Arbor University of Michigan
- Toccoa Falls College of Georgia
- Union University of Tennessee
- University of Mary Hardin-Baylor of Texas
- University of Mobile in Alabama
- University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky
- Williams Baptist College in Arkansas
The gender identity enforcement exemptions, according to the report, were granted to the 23 schools listed above and to:
- Belmont Abbey College of North Carolina
This item has been updated.