In a lawsuit filed this week, 33 current and former students at U.S. Christian colleges and universities say their schools should be ineligible for federal funding due to LGBTQ discrimination that’s permitted due to religious exemptions. The class-action suit brought by the LGBTQ students names 25 institutions of higher education and aims to strike down the religious exemption in Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bans discrimination based on sex.
“The Plaintiffs seek safety and justice for themselves and for the countless sexual and gender minority students whose oppression, fueled by government funding, and unrestrained by government intervention, persists with injurious consequences to mind, body and soul,” the suit states. “The Department’s inaction leaves students 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.”
Lawsuit Is Timed for Debate About the Equality Act
The nonprofit group Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), which filed the lawsuit on behalf of students, fears that LGBTQ students at Christian colleges will miss out on Equality Act protections. That’s because religious groups are trying to obtain compromises, fearing that the landmark legislation, if passed, would destroy religious freedoms.
Paul Southwick, director of Oregon-based REAP, says, “Many mainstream LGBTQ groups aren’t committed to fighting. We want to say, ‘Don’t negotiate us away.’ Don’t bargain away these students, who are really being damaged with taxpayer money. I’m worried they will be cut out of the Equality Act through negotiations.”
One reason mainstream LGBTQ groups aren’t involved in these cases, says Southwick, is that “when you talk about queer kids at Christian colleges, [groups’] responses are ‘What the h— are they doing there?” But, he points out, students may end up at religious schools because of their family’s conservative beliefs. Once on campus, “They’re treated inhumanely and subjected to these dangerous and abusive policies and practices.”
REAP says one-third of America’s 600 four-year nonprofit Christian colleges have anti-LGBTQ policies in their student-conduct codes. Citing U.S. Treasury Department data, REAP says those approximately 200 colleges receive $4.2 billion in federal funding.
Lawsuit from LGTBQ Students Aims to Personalize the Debate
Involving numerous plaintiffs helps attach names and faces to students facing discrimination, according to REAP. Plaintiff Veronica Penales, a sophomore at Baylor University, describes having a “mixed experience” there. Some friends and faculty are supportive, she says, while others are “kind of behind the scenes not rooting for you.”
Penales reports being targeted with offensive slurs and receiving a Bible in which anti-gay quotes had been highlighted. Despite her complaints, administrators have done nothing to help, she says. “I really hope this lawsuit being so public…ensures that the LGBTQ+ issue is at the forefront, as it should be.”
Elizabeth Hunter, who attended Bob Jones University after being adopted by a fundamentalist Christian family, says administrators questioned her about her sexuality, made her attend anti-gay counseling, and ended her on-campus job. The plaintiff denies trying to stir up trouble, saying she merely wanted to “affirm GLBT rights without opposing biblical values.”
Liberty University graduate Lucas Wilson, another plaintiff, says he chose the school because of its student-run conversion therapy group. Now, however, he says that group and Liberty’s culture “amplified and compounded feelings of self-hatred, feelings of shame and guilt and anxiety that ultimately took years to deconstruct.” Wilson, 30, calls Liberty a “thoroughly homophobic institution.”
Christian Schools Respond to Charges
Several schools aren’t commenting, saying they haven’t seen the lawsuit yet or don’t talk about pending litigation. But previous statements from administrators range from support for LGBTQ students to defense of their Bible-based policies.