Recently, a class action lawsuit against several Christian colleges and universities called into question the value of the religious exemption written into Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Furthermore, it also prompts an important conversation about whether or not religious exemptions have any place in civil and human rights legislation.
Specifically, the lawsuit involves 33 plaintiffs, all members of the LGBTQ+ community who have attended Christian colleges and universities across the United States and have experienced mistreatment by the hands of their educational institutions. These schools receive public funding and are therefore subject to compliance with Title IX. However, Title IX includes an “exemption for educational institutions controlled by a religious organization, to the extent that application of the regulation would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”
The grievances detailed in the lawsuit include forced conversion therapy, being denied housing and healthcare and sexual, physical and emotional abuse and harrassment. In nearly every one of the cases, these LGBTQ+ students were made to feel guilty and ashamed of their identities. Those involved in the lawsuit have started the “Religious Exemption Accountability Project’’ or REAP.
Research shows these students’ experiences are common. A 2016 APA study found that over half of sexual minorities attending religiously affiliated colleges or universities had experienced bullying or harassment on account of their sexual orientation. As a result, these students also more commonly experienced anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders and other similar adverse effects.
In addition, about one-third of Christian colleges and universities include a statement in their handbooks banning “homosexual behavior.”
While Augustana is not named in the lawsuit, and it is generally safe to be out as LGBTQ+ on campus, this case highlights a few issues.
First, there is the religious exemption piece that is available to all religiously affiliated colleges and universities. The ELCA’s LGBTQ+ affirming views provide protections for Augustana’s gender and sexual minority students. In addition, Augustana states in the handbook that it is compliant with Title IX and also that it is “committed to providing equal access to and participation in employment opportunities and in programs and services, without regard to race, color, religion, creed, sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information, national origin, ancestry, age, veteran status, or disability.” By its own rules, Augustana can’t abuse its freedom of religion in this way. No matter what happens with this lawsuit, it is an opportunity to acknowledge that Augustana enjoys certain privileges because of its affiliation with the Lutheran church.
Also, and perhaps even more importantly, this case is a reminder that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of personal beliefs. While this may seem obvious, the Religious Exemption Accountability Project’s very existence shows that there are those in the country that mistreat others while believing that they are right and, also, that there are systems in place that allow them to do so.
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