Metro Weekly

LGBTQ students from faith-based colleges sue Education Department for discrimination

Plaintiffs allege that the exemptions to Title IX granted to religiously-affiliated universities are unconstitutional

lgbtq students
Zayn Silva – Photo: Religious Exemption Accountability Project.

Dozens of current and former college students have launched a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education, arguing that the religious exemption to Title IX — and the way the department has historically handled requests from colleges by universally granting exemptions — condones and fosters discrimination against LGBTQ students who attend faith-based colleges and universities.

The class action lawsuit, filed by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project on behalf of 33 plaintiffs from 25 evangelical and LDS colleges in 18 different states, alleges that the colleges seeking out religious exemptions receive billions in taxpayer funding — in the form of federal financial aid, loans, grants, and even state bonds for construction — while actively discriminating against LGBTQ students.

The plaintiffs include a mix of current students — some of whom are using a pseudonym for their safety — as well as recently-expelled students, and alumni who suffered harassment, discrimination, and were subjected to either conversion therapy and other discipline from their colleges because they identified as LGBTQ. 

The lawsuit claims that the exemption for religious colleges (no matter how loosely affiliated with a particular faith tradition) violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on the establishment of religion, and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ guarantee of Equal Protection under the law, as it applies to LGBTQ Americans. By granting exemptions to faith-based colleges, REAP argues, the federal government is allowing those institutions to discriminate based on students’ sexual orientation and gender identity, or, in other words, based on their sex or their sex assigned at birth — which strikes at the very heart of Title IX.

“The toxic theologies of white Christian Supremacy have real consequences on the lives and education of LGBTQI people across the country. This isn’t about hurt feelings over being denied wedding cakes or bouquets,” Rev. Alba Onofrio, the co-executive director of Soulforce, the nonprofit that sponsors REAP, said in a statement.

“This case clearly shows how some Christian institutions have stolen the God of love and life and replaced good theologies with violent ones that cause harm to the minds, bodies, and spirits of this nation’s young people,” Onofrio added. As a Christian minister, I believe we should all be outraged that the Word of God is being used for such widespread evil and systemic violence.”

The plaintiffs all have various stories detailing the harm they were subjected to due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. One plaintiff, Veronica Bonifacio Penales, a queer Filipina attending Baylor University in Waco, Texas, claims she is frequently harassed by anonymously placed Post-It notes on her dorm door calling her a “F**” at the Christian university. While LGBTQ students are allowed to be “out” at Baylor, the university refuses to allow a student LGBTQ group on campus. When Penales reported the harassment to the school’s Title IX office, they recommended she attend counseling, as reported by NBC News.

“I am participating in this lawsuit because I want Baylor to realize what it is doing is wrong and harmful. There is no excuse for ostracizing, discriminating against, and hurting their students,” Penales said in a statement.

lgbtq students
Veronica Penales – Photo: Kevin Truong.

Another plaintiff, Alex Duron, is an ICU nurse whose admission to a graduate nursing degree program at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., was rescinded last year because he is gay and lives and owns a home with his same-sex partner.

Union’s policies denied me access to the federally-funded nursing program of my choice. A federally funded institution should not be able to pick and choose who can receive an education,” Duron said in a statement. “I am a federal taxpayer. I also took out student loans from the U.S. Department of Education to attend Union. I should have been protected by Title IX, but I was not because of a religious exemption.”

A third plaintiff, Zayn Silva, a Black and Latinx transman from Brooklyn, was denied admission to Nyack College in Manhattan last year due to his gender identity. Silva, who was raised as a Pentecostal Christian since childhood, came out as trans at age 19, and began trying to balance his religious beliefs with his identity, ultimately accepting his identity and transitioning at age 24. He applied to Nyack in hopes of becoming a minister.

“Probably a month or two after applying, after talking to an adviser and confirming a date for me to come and check out the school in person and have a tour of campus, the director of admissions called me and told me that they were rejecting my application because I had stated that I was transgender and I was proud to be transgender on my application,” Silva told Metro Weekly in an interview.

Related: LGBTQ students at Christian colleges more likely to experience harassment than their peers

Silva is hopeful that the lawsuit will help send the message that LGBTQ students need to be treated with dignity, noting that it is not all that uncommon for LGBTQ people to attend religious colleges and universities, especially if they were raised in religious households.

“My story is a story of so many queer young folks. A lot of queer folks also in the faith, like myself, learn to love God, and learn to love their spirituality,” he says. “Being prevented from attaining knowledge about Christ — something that I would pay for, something that my taxes pay for, something that they’re getting funded by the state — it’s just it’s a slap in the face.

“As someone that loves Christ and and proclaims that Christ is my savior and messiah and identifies as a trans man, I should be allowed to go into any space that represents Christ as well,” he says of being turned away from the college of his choice. “It was difficult for me because I felt God called me to move forward in ministry by going to a Christian college. So it was definitely discouraging. … As a Christian, I want everyone to come to the faith and I want everyone to feel that joy that I feel, and this is not one of the ways that I believe that we do this.”

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Elizabeth Hunter – Photo: Kevin Truong.

Elizabeth Hunter, a gay woman who graduated from Bob Jones University in 2019, told Metro Weekly in an interview that the school’s stances on homosexuality and transgenderism created a  “toxic” atmosphere for LGBTQ students.

Prior to coming out, Hunter had served as director of the student media group on campus, working with the school’s TV station. But during her senior year, she began to come out in small ways, sharing tweets reading “Happy Pride!” or sharing books featuring LGBTQ characters in it. But when administrators found out, they fired her from her position as director.

“I had to pay a $70 fine. I was involved in the Community Service Council, but was removed from it. I wasn’t allowed to ever represent the school, whether it was in community service or social media. I wasn’t allowed to work in the TV department, or do anything that could be linked to the school publicly in any way,” she says. “I was put on disciplinary probation. I had to go to required counseling. There was a lot of monitoring of my social media. When I went back to public on Twitter, I had to take down posts I had made that were affirming of my sexuality, and I had to be extremely careful about what I posted.

“I just never felt completely safe at school again,” Hunter adds. “I always felt like I was being monitored. And the required counseling was extremely rough to go through because it just continually wanted me to confess to being homosexual and to recant my views and agree with the school about sexuality, which I couldn’t do. … I was threatened with being expelled, but I never walked outside of the rules again, and they chose not to expel me.”

But Hunter says the problem with religious schools like Bob Jones that seek exemptions from Title IX is that, once they receive the exemptions, the schools foster a hostile environment that degrades LGBTQ students’ feelings of self-worth and penalizes them for being true to themselves. 

lgbtq students
Paul Southwick – Photo: Kevin Truong.

“For me, the big picture is that no student to be afraid of who they are. And just stating that I thought I might be gay and my university cracking down on me for that, created a lot of emotional fear. I thought I could be expelled and I could lose like everything at college just for being who I was,” Hunter says. “I don’t think any student should ever have to go through that. I don’t think anyone should have to be punished for just existing.

“Our campuses should be safe places for us,” she adds. “And they shouldn’t cause us emotional distress for who we are. And so that’s definitely why I think no matter what what campus it is, it should be a safe place for students. And so for me, the driving motivation behind [joining] the lawsuit is standing up for people’s safety and their rights as students.”

Paul Southwick, an attorney and director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, said the lawsuit was brought in the hope of having the Title IX exemption overturned as unconstitutional.

We brought this case because as things currently stand, there really are no protections for for queer and trans students at Christian colleges that receive taxpayer funding,” Southwick told Metro Weekly, pointing to a recent REAP survey finding that LGBTQ students at Christian universities are more likely to experience harassment than their cisgender peers.

But he also notes the lawsuit also has broader implications for the fate of other LGBTQ rights measures, like the Equality Act.

“We were going to bring this case regardless of what happens with the Equality Act,” Southwick says. “But now that the Equality Act is being debated, it’s being hotly contested what religious exemptions, if any, should be included. And we want to make sure that the voices of the 100,000 queer students at campuses like Bob Jones University at BYU and Baylor are heard in this debate, and that if there are negotiations over religious exemptions, these students’ rights don’t get negotiated away.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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