Metro Weekly

Court Sides with Religious Colleges over LGBTQ Students

Judge tosses lawsuit challenging Title IX exemptions that allow religious colleges to discriminate against LGBTQ students.

college, university
The campus of Liberty University, one of the religious colleges named in REAP’s lawsuit – Photo: Idawriter, via Wikimedia.

A federal court has thrown out a lawsuit challenging exemptions to Title IX that permit religious colleges and universities to discriminate against LGBTQ students based on their purported beliefs opposing homosexuality.

U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken, of the District of Oregon, dismissed the lawsuit, which was filed by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project against the U.S. Department of Education, on behalf of more than 40 LGBTQ students, alumni, and applicants to religious schools.

In her ruling, Aiken found that the plaintiffs had not proven their case and were unlikely to win if the matter proceeded to trial. She also denied their request for an injunction to prevent the U.S. Department of Education from granting exemptions to religious institutions.

Currently, the department grants exemptions to religious colleges that enable those institutions to continue receiving federal aid, despite discriminating against LGBTQ students, often based on a code of morals or set of religious beliefs opposing homosexuality or same-sex marriage. Other colleges are prohibited from discriminating under Title IX’s prohibitions on sex-based discrimination, which can be applied to instances of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs claimed that granting the exemption to the religious colleges leaves any out LGBTQ students vulnerable to harassment, suspension or potential expulsion, denial of housing and health care, and — in some instances — forced conversion therapy.

They also argued that the exemption is unconstitutional, violating students’ free speech rights, right to due process, and right to equal protection under the law.

But Aiken decided in favor of the religious colleges, arguing that the plaintiffs had not met the burden of proof to proceed with their lawsuit.

“Exempting religiously controlled educational institutions from Title IX…is substantially related to the government’s objective of accommodating religious exercise,” Aiken wrote in her opinion. She also noted that the plaintiffs did not provide any basis for their claim that the purpose of the exemption is “to ensure financial support for institutions who engage in a religious practice of discrimination.”

“Without alleging factual specifics, Plaintiffs allege that ‘many’ of them ‘maintain sincerely held religious beliefs, including their understanding of sexuality, gender and intimate relationships,’ and that the religious exemption violates RFRA because it substantially burdens those religious beliefs,” wrote Aiken.

“The text of RFRA is clear that government granting exemptions does not constitute a violation, unless impermissible under Establishment Clause principles. Plaintiffs also fail to allege facts to demonstrate that it is Defendants — the government actor — that has burdened Plaintiffs religious beliefs,” she added. “Accordingly, Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim under this cause of action….and supplemental briefs are legally insufficient to cure those defects and thus amendment would be futile.”

The lawsuit gained attention last year after the U.S. Department of Justice, which represented the U.S. Department of Education in court, promised to “vigorously defend” the religious exemption before backtracking the following day. 

In October, the court allowed three Christian postsecondary schools represented by the anti-LGBTQ Alliance Defending Freedom, to intervene in the lawsuit to defend keeping the lawsuit in place. 

Ryan Tucker, senior counsel for ADF, told The Washington Times that the dismissal was a “big victory” for religious schools.

“This lawsuit [if successful] would have slammed the door shut [for] most students who were looking to pursue higher education at religious colleges and universities,” Tucker said, referring to the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction to stop the Education Department from granting the exemptions. He also claimed that the plaintiffs were seeking to “punish” religious colleges for refusing to compromise their beliefs regarding human sexuality.

“America is big enough for religious schools and secular schools, both public and private, to coexist. And denying students access to the college of their choice by stripping away federal funding from students who choose religious schools is discriminatory and wrong,” he said.

The plaintiffs have said they are considering appealing Aiken’s decision. 

In a statement, the Religious Exemption Accountability Project said that while Aiken acknowledged the harm the plaintiffs had suffered, the organization was disappointed at the dismissal and the rationale behind it.

“Because of today’s decision, tens of thousands of LGBTQIA+ students across the country will continue to be discriminated against at universities receiving taxpayer money. The Religious Exemption Accountability Project will continue to fight to protect LGBTQIA+ students’ rights on these campuses,” the organization said in a statement.

“I am disappointed in the ruling. The actions of the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice have shown once again that human dignity is optional,” plaintiff Kalie Hargrove, who attended Lincoln Christian University, said in a statement.

“I was publicly dehumanized, kicked out of school, received death threats, and had people call for my execution for being a Christian student at a Christian school who happened to be trans, and my Government refused to protect me then, and refuses to protect me now,” said Hargrove.

“I am enraged. The court’s decision that there is no legal remedy for the harm done to us LGBTQ+ students makes the government complicit in both allowing and perpetuating homophobia and transphobia.” plaintiff Lucas Wilson, who attended Liberty University, added. “Very simply, the court could and should have decided to protect queer students; these taxpayer-funded religious schools ought not be privileged over LGBTQ+ students’ safety and vitality.”

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