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LGBT legal group sues to strip religious universities of civil rights protections


Accuses universities of ‘psychological abuses’

A group of Christian college students is suing the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that Title IX’s religious exemption allows federally-funded religious colleges and universities to discriminate against LGBTQ students.

The Religious Exemption Accountability Project filed the lawsuit in an Oregon federal court on March 29. The suit aims to prohibit any students from using federal tuition grants, student loans, and any other federal financial aid at post-secondary schools that uphold biblical beliefs on gender and sexuality.

“REAP’s lawsuit asserts the constitutional and basic human rights of LGBTQ+ students, seeking to end the sexual, physical and psychological abuses perpetrated under the religious exemption to Title IX at thousands of federally-funded schools, colleges and universities across America,” according to the organization’s website.

Paul Southwick, director of REAP, will represent 33 current and former students of Christian post-secondary institutions across the country. The plaintiffs come from 25 Christian seminaries and colleges across the country.

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“We filed the lawsuit because taxpayer-funded discrimination at religious colleges is widespread and causing harm to thousands of LGBTQ+ students,” Southwick told The College Fix via email when asked about the timing of the lawsuit.

The introduction of the lawsuit said that the Department of Education is complicit in the oppression of thousands of LGBTQ+ students at religious post-secondary institutions.

“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,” the lawsuit said.

The inaction also has the “less visible, but no less damaging, consequences of institutionalized shame, fear, anxiety and loneliness.”

The lawsuit, Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education, is named after one of the plaintiffs, Elizabeth Hunter, a former student at Bob Jones University in South Carolina.

Elizabeth faced disciplinary action from the administration after she refused to disavow her support of the LGBTQ+ community. She was fined, removed from her on-campus position, and required to attend counseling with the Dean of Women.

“Bob Jones is notorious for these extreme policies. In 1983, the US Supreme Court required it to reverse policies that disallowed interracial dating,” the lawsuit said.

In the case, Bob Jones University v. United States, the Supreme Court rejected the university’s defense of a sincerely held religious belief concerning interracial marriage. The school had forfeited its tax-exempt status until dropping the policy in 2000.

The ban on interracial dating came after Asian parents raised concerns about their son, a student at the school, marrying a white girl, according to Christianity Today.

Attorney said religious freedom federal law does not apply

Another student, Danielle Powell, was expelled from her school, Grace University, after she came out as homosexual.

Similarly, Nathan Brittsan was expelled days into his semester at Fuller Theological Seminary after the school found out he was gay and married to a man.

When questioned if the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to higher-education funding, Southwick told The Fix that “RFRA does not protect taxpayer-funded actions that harm LGBTQ+ students.”

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a bipartisan federal law sponsored by then-Representative Chuck Schumer and signed by President Bill Clinton. RFRA said that government entities can only “burden” religious freedom if its the least restrictive way to advance a “compelling government interest.”

Religious liberty legal group seeks to intervene

While REAP may be more likely to have allies at the federal education department now, it could have to contend with a well-known conservative legal group.

The religious freedom legal advocacy group, Alliance Defending Freedom, recently filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of William Jessup University, Corban University, and Phoenix Seminary. ADF maintains that the demands of the lawsuit undermine the religious liberties of colleges and universities.

“This lawsuit wants the federal government to tell Christian schools, ‘To continue accepting students who have federal financial aid, all you have to do is to start acting contrary to your own beliefs,'” David Cortman, a senior counsel for the group said in a news release. “That’s neither reasonable nor constitutional.”

“The Biden administration, which was named in the lawsuit, has already announced that Title IX should be reinterpreted in a way that would undermine religious freedom,” Cortman said.

The Fix reached out to William Jessup University, Corban University, and Phoenix Seminary for comment on the lawsuit.

The legal department at William Jessup directed The College Fix to ADF’s statements.

Corban University and Phoenix Seminary did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Editor’s note: The article has been updated to clarify that Christian colleges, not students, filed a motion to intervene.

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About the Author
Mary-Grace Byers -- Franciscan University of Steubenville