The Biden administration has surprised LGBTQ advocacy groups by forcefully telling a federal court they will defend Christian schools’ religious freedom to discriminate against LGBTQ students. The Department of Justice (DOJ) says it shares the “same ultimate objective” as the college and universities that have been accused of bias.
Thirty-three LGBTQ students who attended religious colleges and universities have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Education, saying that giving religious exemptions to colleges so that they can discriminate against LGBTQ students resulted in harassment, conversion therapy, expulsion, and humiliation.
Many colleges and universities openly discriminate against LGBTQ people, even writing out explicit policies that ban students from coming out, forcing them to present as their sex assigned at birth, prohibiting them from forming clubs, and banning dating someone of the same sex. Title IX’s religious exemption says that that’s fine since “an educational institution which is controlled by a religious organization” can discriminate if the ban on discrimination based on sex “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization.”
A group of current students, students who got expelled, and alumni of exempt schools formed an organization called Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) and they’re suing, saying that the federal government is handing out billions – $4.2 billion in just 2018 – to schools that aren’t protecting their equal rights.
The plaintiffs in Hunter v. Department of Education are from 18 different states and attended 25 different colleges and universities, all associated with Christianity.
The Council of Christian Colleges and Universities tried to intervene in the case, saying the DOJ wouldn’t provide a thorough defense and “may be openly hostile” to their cause. The administration’s brief opposes the group’s intervention and argues that they are more than capable of defending the law on their own.
The Biden administration’s and the Christian schools’ interests are “identical,” the brief says, with both committed “to uphold the Religious Exemption as it is currently applied.”
Biden supports the Equality Act, landmark LGBTQ civil rights legislation currently stalled in the Senate. The proposed law bans religious businesses and organizations from claiming the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) gives them a religious exemption to anti-discrimination laws.
Students usually apply to colleges as teenagers and they’re often minors when they make a decision about where to go before they have had a chance to explore their identity. Some face family pressure to attend a religious school, and getting financial aid for college requires help from parents that can be used as leverage.
The result is that 100,000 LGBTQ students are attending schools that discriminate against them, receive federal funds, but are exempt by the Department of Education from enforcing Title IX, according to REAP.
These students are forced to hide their identities, which can cause harm. And these policies result in other material harm to students.
Elizabeth Hunter is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. She was put in the foster care system until the age of 10 and placed with a family that was part of a fundamentalist Christian cult in Texas. Her parents didn’t want her to attend college because she’s a woman, but she applied to the fundamentalist Bob Jones University (BJU) because she thought it was one of the few schools she could attend without getting disowned.
Hunter said that BJU’s anti-LGBTQ policies “created a scary, harsh environment” for her as a lesbian.
In her junior year, she posted online about a book she was reading that had a lesbian character. She was summoned to a meeting with administrators and told she “must be gay.” The administrators told her to “disavow” same-sex relationships, and when she refused she was put on disciplinary probation, forced to pay a fine, and forced to undergo therapy.
“This was the darkest month of my entire life,” Hunter said. “I felt depressed and suicidal. For the rest of my time at BJU, I was forced completely back into the closet and had to hold my head down in shame. I survived and graduated in May of 2019. But I still feel the sting of the discrimination I endured.”