A class action accusing the US Department of Education to falsely allow discrimination against LGBTQ students in faith-based schools has grown in attendance and overall support over the past 15 months.
The Religious Exemption Project filed its lawsuit on March 31, 2021, challenging Title IX exemptions granted to religious schools that received taxpayer money in the form of grants and scholarships.
Title IX currently applies to all schools that receive federal funding, including private religious institutions: program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
After the Education Changes of 1972 were passed, discrimination based on pregnancy, sexual orientation and gender identity also became prohibited.
However, private religious institutions are allowed to ask exemptions based on their religious beliefs. REAP court case argues that all schools that accept federal funds should adhere to the full Title IX.
“Plaintiffs ask this court to declare that the religious exemption in Title IX, as applied to sexual and gender minority students, is unconstitutional and that the department must enforce Title IX protections at all educational institutions. taxpayer-funded education, including at institutions that discriminate and cause harm based on sincere religious beliefs,” the lawsuit states.
The trial started with 33 plaintiffs and has now expanded to 46 plaintiffs. After news of the trial broke, hundreds of LGBTQ people from religious institutions asked to be included, according to Paul Southwick, director of REAP.
“We can’t add everyone to the case because it gets a bit unmanageable at a certain point,” Southwick said. “The idea of our case is that, although we have 46 plaintiffs, they stand in the place of all queer, trans and non-binary students in these spaces. They are representatives of the community as a whole.
One of the new plaintiffs, Devin Bryant, was expelled from Christian Covenant Academy in Colleyville, Texas, according to the lawsuit.
“I feel like the reason I got kicked out wasn’t because of ‘struggling with same-sex attraction,'” Bryant said. “I think the problem is that I was comfortable with my queer identity.”
Indiana Wesleyan University student Mortimer Halligan is a member of an LGBTQ group on campus. However, the university will not allow them to become an official student body and they meet off campus for security reasons.
“I want to feel safe on campus,” Halligan said in the lawsuit.
Jamie Lord, a student at Regent University School of Law, faced discrimination for identifying as a lesbian. Before going to law school, she was assured that her sexuality would not affect her time in college. When she arrived on campus, that wasn’t the reality. She was told she could be “kicked out of school” if she brought her girlfriend to campus.
“A teacher told me I was going to hell because I’m a lesbian and if I prayed hard enough God would save me from my sinful ways,” Lord said in the lawsuit.
REAP helped complainants report incidents of LGBTQ discrimination to the Civil Rights Office of the Ministry of Education. The United States Department of Justice initially stated on June 8, 2021 that it would defend religious exemptions under Title IX; however, the Biden administration has appeared to change its tune recently. Three investigations have been opened by the Biden administration, according to a Press release published on May 4.
Southwick said most of the plaintiffs filed Title IX complaints. Today, seven official investigations have been opened.
Southwick said schools with open investigations into LGBTQ discrimination include Liberty University, Regent University, Lincoln Christian University, Clarks Summit University, La Sierra University, Azusa Pacific University and Colorado Christian University.
Southwick said he hopes some cases will be thoroughly investigated and eventually resolved to protect LGBTQ people, but many will likely end up being thrown out due to religious exemptions.
“That’s why we have the lawsuit to stop these layoffs from happening,” Southwick said. “We want investigations to continue to find out if there has been discrimination, and if so, how to address it and protect students.”
The lawsuit itself has progressed, and REAP officials are “awaiting certain court decisions on plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction and defendants’ motions to dismiss,” Southwick said.
“The judge’s decisions on these preliminary matters could come day to day, or months from now,” he said. “A lot of it is out of our control because the courts are really in lockdown due to COVID. So typically cases like this take several years to resolve.
In the meantime, Southwick said REAP will continue to focus on Title IX investigations and assist LGBTQ groups with student activism in religious institutions. He also said he hopes the lawsuit inspires religious schools to become LGBTQ affirming.
If a federal court decides that Title IX exemptions to taxpayer-funded religious schools are unconstitutional, religious schools will have to make a choice: comply with Title IX or lose federal funding.
“I like to look to history to educate us on what is likely to happen in the future,” Southwick said. “Looking at the history of the civil rights movement, a lot of those religious schools that continued to practice racist policies, they don’t anymore. None of them. … I believe the same thing will eventually happen when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity. … I hope that day will come sooner rather than later, because the children really need it.
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