The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dozens of LGBTQ students at Christian colleges sue the U.S. Education Dept., hoping to pressure Equality Act negotiations

Elizabeth Hunter is among more than two dozen past and current students from Christian colleges who are suing the U.S. Education Department. (Kevin Truong)

Elizabeth Hunter says she became suicidal after Bob Jones University administrators grilled the former student about her sexuality for tweeting “happy Pride” and writing a book with lesbian characters. She was fined, sent to anti-gay counseling and removed from her job at the campus TV station. Veronica Penales says she’s told officials at Baylor University, where she is a sophomore, that people leave anti-gay notes on her door, but they don’t investigate. Lucas Wilson said he graduated from Liberty University with “a profound sense of shame” after being encouraged to go to conversion therapy.

The three are among 33 current and past students at federally funded Christian colleges and universities cited in a federal lawsuit filed Monday against the U.S. Department of Education. The suit says the religious exemption the schools are given that allow them to have discriminatory policies is unconstitutional because they receive government funding. The class-action suit, filed by the nonprofit Religious Exemption Accountability Project, references 25 schools across the country.

“The Plaintiffs seek safety and justice for themselves and for the countless sexual and gender minority students whose oppression, fueled by government funding, and unrestrained by government intervention, persists with injurious consequences to mind, body and soul,” reads the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Oregon. “The Department’s inaction leaves students unprotected from the harms of conversion therapy, expulsion, denial of housing and healthcare, sexual and physical abuse and harassment, as well as the less visible, but no less damaging, consequences of institutionalized shame, fear, anxiety and loneliness.”

The suit — intentionally — comes at a sensitive time. The U.S. House recently passed the Equality Act, a sweeping measure that would add gender identity and sexuality to the groups protected under the Civil Rights Act, while significantly weakening exemptions for religious groups and people. While President Biden says he will sign the bill as it is, the Equality Act awaits a vote in the Senate, where it faces an uphill battle.

Religious organizations seeking a compromise measure that would include religious exemptions have been meeting for weeks with gay rights and civil rights groups. The prospect of carve-outs for the hundreds of schools with policies barring ­LGBTQ behavior or advocacy led to the suit, said Paul Carlos Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project.

“Many mainstream LGBTQ groups aren’t committed to fighting. We want to say: ‘Don’t negotiate us away.’ Don’t bargain away these students, who are really being damaged with taxpayer money,” Southwick said. “I’m worried they will be cut out of the Equality Act protection through negotiations.”

An Education Department spokeswoman noted in an email that Biden signed an executive order just after taking office saying his administration “guaranteed an education environment free from discrimination” for ­LGBTQ people. The order, however, didn’t address the issue of religious rights and exemptions. The statement Monday said the department considers religious exemptions valid and legal for a certain subset of schools: “educational institutions controlled by religious organizations.” It’s not clear how many conservative Christian schools today fall into that category.

A spokeswoman for Baylor declined to comment, saying the school hadn’t seen the suit. Lori Fogleman directed The Post to a 2019 statement from the school’s president noting that its code of conduct — typical of the schools referenced in the suit — bars sexual relations between people outside heterosexual marriage. The statement also said that the school is “in compliance” with the law and that students aren’t disciplined or expelled for “same-sex attraction.” It says the school’s counselors “do not practice or condone conversion or reparative therapy.” Baylor’s LGBTQ group is not allowed official status.

“With this said, we understand that we must do more to demonstrate love and support for our students who identify as LGBTQ,” President Linda A. Livingstone wrote.

A spokesman for Bob Jones said the school hadn’t seen the lawsuit and therefore wouldn’t comment on it. However, President Steve Pettit earlier this month wrote that the Equality Act “would enforce a single government-sanctioned ideology and punish those who do not conform.” Spokesman Randy Page wrote to The Post that the school “believes that all persons have inherent dignity and should thus be treated with kindness and respect. In addition, the Supreme Court has twice stated that government must respect the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

A request for comment from Liberty wasn’t immediately returned.

The suit injects dozens of personal experiences into a debate about religious liberty and ­LGBTQ rights that’s often been more legalistic. It seeks to put individual faces and names on an aspect of Equality Act debate that doesn’t get much attention — students at conservative Christian schools.

It cites a gay ICU nurse who said he was admitted to a graduate nursing program, sold his car, left his old job and was days away from starting school when he was allegedly told his admission was rescinded because he is engaged to a man. “A grown man with a successful career, loving family and fiancé, [he] went into his closet, curled up in a ball and cried,” the suit says. It cites a queer student who recalls being regularly called slurs on a Christian school’s campus and is afraid to walk at night alone. According to the suit, that person is often subject to disciplinary action for wearing feminine-style clothing. Another said he was fired as a resident assistant and then kicked out of school for being openly bisexual.

The suit argues that the exemptions violate the Constitution’s equal protection clauses by singling out LGBTQ students as a “socially despised group for legal disfavor.” It also argues the exemptions violate the Establishment Clause — the part of the First Amendment barring the government from favoring religion, or a religion — because the Education Department asks schools that want an exemption questions about their religious practices and affiliations. This is, the suit says, unconstitutional government meddling and judging about religion.

According to the Religious Exemptions project, there are approximately 600 four-year, degree-granting nonprofit Christian colleges in the United States, one-third of which have policies against LGBTQ students in their student code of conduct policies.

The project, using a U.S. Treasury Department website that calculates federal aid says the approximately 200 religious schools with discriminatory policies receive $4.2 billion. The site, called Data Lab, said as of 2018, the last year for which data is available, Baylor received $142 million and Liberty $723 million.

Hunter, who graduated from Bob Jones in 2019 and is now a news producer in South Carolina, said she was careful never to publicly say she thought she might be a lesbian and felt she was only trying to subtly raise questions with her tweets. A sexual assault survivor who grew up in foster care and then was adopted by a fundamentalist family, she said that before her punishments, on campus, “I was considered a really nice person.”

“I wasn’t advocating gay people should have rights. I knew biblically the school would disagree. I wanted to affirm GLBT rights without opposing biblical values. All I was saying online is: ‘I’m trying to live.’ ”