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Nearly three dozen religious colleges seek waivers on transgender students

Bethel College in northern Indiana school is among the more than two dozen religiously affiliated colleges nationwide to receive exemptions from a federal law that protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and employees from discrimination.
Bethel College in northern Indiana school is among the more than two dozen religiously affiliated colleges nationwide to receive exemptions from a federal law that protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and employees from discrimination.

Higher education institutions that receive federal funds for research or financial aid are barred from discriminating on the basis of sex under Title IX, the 1972 law that originally was used to open men’s colleges to women and to create more athletic opportunities for women at co-ed schools.

Colleges controlled by religious organizations always have been eligible to seek exemptions from Title IX. More than 190 representing both Christian and Jewish denominations received the waivers from the mid-1970s through the late 1990s, seeking permission, for example, to only hire male teachers for certain positions or to sanction students or employees who had sex outside marriage.

Catherine Lhamon, the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement that the government would “vigorously enforce Title IX’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex, including gender identity, in every applicable school.” But she noted that her office does not have discretion to deny waivers to colleges seeking a religious exemption.

“Congress did exempt from Title IX’s protection institutions that are controlled by religious organizations, to the extent that Title IX conflicts with their religious tenets,” Lhamon said in a statement. “We are committed to protecting every student Congress gave us jurisdiction to protect.”

At least 24 of the 34 colleges and universities granted religious exemptions based on their beliefs about gender identity also received waivers allowing them to discriminate against gay and lesbian students and employees, citing faith-based prohibitions against homosexual sex, the Human Rights Campaign said.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision at the beginning of 2015 to accept the case in which a court majority ruled in June that state gay marriage bans are unconstitutional was a likely trigger, Warbelow said.

“It’s indicative of the progress that LGBT people have made, both in terms of social acceptance so there are more LGBT people willing to live openly, and developments in the law,” she said.

The Department of Education says another 22 schools have exemption requests under review.

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