The Biden administration announced that it is launching a Title IX investigation into alleged anti-LGBTQ discrimination at a Christian college in Pennsylvania that kicked out a student for being gay.
The investigation signals a sea change in how the federal government perceives anti-LGBTQ discrimination in Christian institutions that receive federal money.
The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Education sent a letter to Clarks Summit College after former student Gary Campbell said that he not allowed to finish his degree in 2019 because he’s gay, even though he was only a few credits from graduating.
“As a Christian college, we expect all students to act in a way that is consistent with our biblical belief system,” Clarks said in a statement at the time. “We have always clearly stated those beliefs and have exercised the freedom to uphold our faith.”
The college refused to explain how they found out Campbell was gay.
Clarks openly discriminates against LGBTQ students. Its student handbook bans students from engaging in same-sex relationships as well as “cross-dressing or other actions deliberately discordant with birth gender.”
The organization Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) filed a complaint about Clarks last July. This week, OCR sent a notification letter about the Title IX investigation that cites the school’s policies.
“I am crying, because for a while I thought what happened at Clarks Summit was my fault, that I was the one who messed up by going to this school,” Campbell told the Blade. “Now the Office for Civil Rights is saying they are diving in deep, that there is value in this investigation. They’re saying there are red flags here, and that helps me rid my mind of a lot of self-gaslighting and doubt, brainwashing that I was at fault. This whole process is therapeutic for me.”
Title IX bans discrimination on the basis of sex at educational institutions that receive federal money, and most do. President Joe Biden last year signed an executive order stating that discrimination against LGBTQ students is illegal because it’s impossible to discriminate against LGBTQ people without taking sex into account, a legal idea that the Supreme Court adopted in its 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County decision.
While Democrats have been arguing for years that anti-LGBTQ discrimination in schools is already illegal, the federal government has largely turned a blind eye to Christian colleges and universities that blatantly discriminate against LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff while still receiving millions in federal money each year.
Partly this is because Christian schools can apply for a religious exemption to Title IX. According to Campus Pride, Clarks claimed a religious exemption to Title IX as recently as 2021.
While religious exemptions to Title IX have existed for decades, the Trump administration expanded them, allowing religious colleges and universities to claim one without applying for it and no longer requiring that exempt schools be affiliated with a religious body and explain why their religious beliefs are inconsistent with equal rights.
The Biden administration’s lack of action on this front is the subject of Hunter v. Department of Education, a lawsuit filed by a group of students and former students of Christian colleges and universities who say they suffered discrimination but that the Department of Education hasn’t done anything about it. REAP helped file the lawsuit and Campbell is one of the plaintiffs.
Many of the colleges have policies banning homosexuality and transgender identity and expression that they use to harass, intimidate, humiliate, and deny educations to LGBTQ 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.”