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Publicly-Funded Religious Colleges Named in LGBTQ+ Class-Action Suit

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A class-action lawsuit filed March 29 against the U.S. Department of Education claims the agency was complicit in allowing “abuses and unsafe conditions” for thousands of LGBTQ+ students at publicly-funded religious colleges and universities.

Twenty-five schools are specifically mentioned in the suit—including Liberty University, Baylor University, Bob Jones University, and Fuller Theological Seminary—which was brought by 33 plaintiffs. The suit claims that although the schools received government funding, the government did not protect sexual and gender minority students as required under Title IX, and that the plaintiffs suffered “injurious consequences to mind, body and soul.”

The suit also says LGBTQ+ students are being denied their Constitutional rights by the schools, including

 the right to privacy regarding sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

The lawsuit said because of the DoE’s inaction, students were left 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.”

“Religious educational institutions that do not affirm LGBTQ+ identities receive a license to discriminate from the Department of Education,” the suit says.

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Attorneys Paul Southwick and Rachel Erica Livingston of Paul Southwick Law will try the case on behalf of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, an advocacy group for students who identify as queer, trans, and non-binary.

Title IX generally prohibits a recipient institution from excluding, separating, denying benefits to or otherwise treating students differently on the basis of sex.

However, per the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, Title IX does not apply to an educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization “to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.” An institution may request a religious exemption in writing from the office.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the religious exemption to Title IX as it applies to sexual and gender minority students unconstitutional, rescind any prior religious exemptions and “ensure that all federally-funded educational institutions respect the sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression of their students.”

The 67-page document summarizes personal experiences from 33 students who were enrolled at the 25 publicly-funded religious institutions.

The class action comes as Congress considers passage of the Equality Act, a proposed amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which would specifically prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity in areas including public accommodations and facilities, education, federal funding, employment, housing, credit, and the jury system.

The bill prohibits an individual from being denied access to any shared facility that is in accordance with the individual’s gender identity and allows the Department of Justice to intervene in equal protection actions in federal court related to sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Equality Act was passed by the House of Representatives in February but faces a tougher battle in the Senate.

An alternate bill also under consideration, the Fairness for All Act, would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity but include provisions to protect the free exercise of religion.

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Anne Stych

Anne Stych is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina.