Lawsuit Targets Exemptions for Religious Schools
Religious Schools Accused of Anti-LGBTQ Bias
LGBTQ advocates challenge a First Amendment exemption, but Christian colleges defend the right to create their own gender policies.
When Nyack College rejected Zayn Silva over the phone, he was so upset he had to cut his Uber ride short. In Silva’s family, Nyack was a highly respected school. His family — who attended church daily — encouraged him to apply. But sitting on a street corner in Williamsburg, disheartened, he had questions for the admissions office. Why did they call him instead of sending a letter? Why was he rejected by a school with a 97% acceptance rate?
The reason for his rejection, they told him, was because he had stated on his application that he was proud to be transgender.
Nyack College is one of nearly 400 religious colleges that claim religious exemption from Title IX — a 1972 federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs that receive federal funding. Title IX does not apply to religious institutions if gender equity “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization,” according to federal law.
“Originally, religious exemption was utilized mainly by schools who wanted to discriminate against women who had had abortions or had children out of wedlock,” said Joe Baxter, legal fellow with the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP).
Now, 50 years after Title IX was passed, “discrimination on the basis of sex” looks a lot different. Many in the LGBTQ community and elsewhere view gender identities and sexual orientations as more fluid than binary. At the same time, Baxter said, religious institutions are now using their Title IX exemptions to target LGBTQ students.
The Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County (2020) that anti-LGBTQ prejudice is discrimination on the basis of sex for the purposes of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Title IX, which has similar language to Title VII, is presumed to provide the same protections. made some adjustments to standing laws in respect to today’s changing gender landscape, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was created to prevent employment discrimination on the basis of sex. In Bostock v. Clayton County (2020), the Court held that in Title VII, discrimination on the basis of sex includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
“It determined that if you discriminate against somebody because they are gay, or because they are transgender, that is discrimination on the basis of sex,” Baxter said. “That legal reasoning applies to Title IX of the Education Amendments as well.”
In 2010, the Obama administration delivered guidance to universities affirming that Title IX “does protect all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) students, from sex discrimination,” including “gender-based harassment.” While this guidance was revoked during the Trump administration, Biden has revived the interpretation.