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DOJ signals it will defend religious colleges’ exemption from anti-LGBTQ discrimination laws

As a baseline understanding of the situation, plaintiffs are challenging a religious exemption as applied to LGBTQ+ students attending private, religious places of higher education that receive federal funding. In this case, the statutory exemption is part of Title IX, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex in the case of schools that receive federal funds. 

What sort of experiences are the plaintiffs alleging? Claims center largely on the way these Christian colleges and universities treat LGBTQ+ students. One student, for example, alleges they were disciplined because they posted about LGBTQ+ issues on social media. Other students alleged they were harassed by peers because of their identity and did not feel they could report to the institution, worried they would be disciplined themselves.

One plaintiff alleges they were told to dress more “feminine” by a teacher, and that their school invited anti-LGBTQ speakers to campus. They also alleged that some professors taught that LGBTQ+ people were “rejected by God.”

Still more students reported anxiety and discomfort over whether or not they would be able to use the pronouns that align with their gender identity. Some plaintiffs even allege that they were encouraged to undergo conversion “therapy,” a dangerous, archaic practice that actively harms LGBTQ+ people.

“Students at Liberty behave in homophobic and anti-queer ways because they know they can do so with relative impunity,” McKenzie McCann, a former student at the Virginia university of Jerry Falwell Jr. notoriety, alleges in the complaint. “Liberty’s culture enables such conduct and makes students feel like Liberty is backing them.”

Notably, plaintiffs argue that while some institutions in question make their status on LGBTQ+ issues transparent for potential students, not all of them do. This scenario is an obvious nightmare for LGBTQ+ students (and even allies) as once you’ve arrived at campus—and especially if you’re a student who lives on campus—you may feel isolated, trapped, and remorseful of the decision and expense. After all, not all religious organizations, schools, or groups are anti-LGBTQ, so simply advising young people not to apply to any Christian schools is not fair to queer people of faith. 

In its filing, the DOJ says the DOE is conducting a review of regulations related to the implementation of Title IX. “At this stage of the litigation,” the filing reads in part. “It is premature to conclude that the federal defendants would neglect to raise, or be ‘ill-equipped’ to develop, effective arguments in support of the religious exemption.”

In speaking to The Washington Post, attorney Paul Carlos Southwick of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, said the DOJ’s filing suggests “the government is now aligning itself with anti-LGBTQ hate in order to vigorously defend an exemption that everyone knows causes severe harm to LGBTQ students using taxpayer money.”

Southwick added that this will “make our case harder if the federal government plans to vigorously defend it like they have indicated.” The Religious Exemption Accountability Project initially submitted the lawsuit on March 19, 2021, in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon. 

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