An Oregon federal district court on Thursday dismissed a class-action lawsuit by current and former LGBTQ students at religious schools, who claimed discrimination under Title IX.
The judge dismissed the suit, filed in March 2021 on behalf of 44 current and former students at 33 religious schools nationwide. These include 22 schools belonging to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, including The Moody Bible Institute, Cedarville University, and Fuller Seminary.
The case, Hunter v. the U.S. Department of Education, claimed the department failed to protect LGBTQ+ students at religious schools from discrimination.
At issue is a religious exemption from Title IX, the civil rights statute that prevents discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. The plaintiffs argued the exemption allows religious schools to discriminate against them.
The lawsuit, perhaps the first of several class-action suits against religious universities, is part of a broader reckoning happening in religious higher education over the last two years. LGBTQ students have staged walk-outs, monthlong sit-ins and protests
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Federal District Court Judge Ann Aiken of the U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon, ruled the plaintiffs had “satisfactorily alleged” that they had been injured by religious exemption.
“In the course of litigation,” Aiken wrote, “the Court reviewed approximately 400 exhibits and thousands of pages of declarations from individual Plaintiffs detailing the treatment they experienced at their religious schools based on their sexual orientation and gender identity; from academic exclusion and denial of student housing, to coerced conversion therapy, to prohibition from forming LGBTQ+ support groups on campus.”
However, Aiken ruled that the plaintiffs had not “alleged the elements necessary to state a legal claim on the merits of their action,” and cited previous federal court rulings that religious exemptions are constitutional and rejected the idea that such exemptions are motivated by an intent to discriminate.
“Plaintiffs do not plausibly demonstrate that the religious exemption was motivated by any impermissible purpose — let alone that Congress was ‘wholly’ motivated by such an impermissible purpose,” Aiken wrote.
Paul Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, a nonprofit that filed the lawsuit, expressed gratitude that the court acknowledged the harm LGBTQ students have experienced but lamented that the court didn’t protect plaintiffs’ rights to be protected from discrimination under federal law.
“The judge repeatedly recognized that the students are being denied equal treatment and equal access to educational opportunities and that the government is, in part, the cause of it. We can hang onto that. That’s the saving grace,” said Southwick.
In a separate statement, the plaintiffs and legal team are considering their options for appeal.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented three Christian colleges that joined the suit as co-defendants, hailed the decision as a win for religious freedom.
“Title IX, which applies to schools receiving federal financial assistance, explicitly protects the freedom of religious schools to live out their deeply and sincerely held convictions,” senior counsel David Cortman said in a statement to RNS. “The court correctly concluded that Title IX’s religious liberty exemption doesn’t violate any of the plaintiffs’ claimed rights.”
The ADF said that the ruling preserves religious universities’ right to accept federal funding via financial aid for students.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged that they saw their applications rejected or were harassed, expelled, disciplined for social media posts or prohibited from dating people of the same sex, among other things, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Calling the ruling “deeply disappointing,” Elizabeth Hunter, one of the plaintiffs in the case, added, “We deserve better, our country deserves better, and history deserves better. The silence and erasure of LGBTQ+ students should not be a precedent.”
The lawyer for the Department of Education argued that the religious schools themselves — and not the department — were responsible for any injury to the students. They also argued that many of the students involved at the schools are no longer enrolled there.
“Defendants argue that Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that their injuries
are redressable given that many Plaintiffs have either left the educational
institutions at issue — through graduation or otherwise — or are no longer seeking
attendance there,” Aiken, the federal district judge, wrote.
Several religious schools as well as the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities intervened in the lawsuit, filing a joint motion to dismiss the case with the Department of Education.
“This is not the end,” said plaintiff Veronica Bonifacio Penales in a press release. “If there is anything to come out of this, I know it is merely the start of a movement led by the students failed by the people who were supposed to protect us.”
Yonat Shimron and Julie Roys contributed to this story.
Kathryn Post and Bob Smietana are national reporters for Religion News Service.
12 thoughts on “Federal Court Dismisses LGBTQ Students’ Class-Action Discrimination Lawsuit”
An example of what the Christian church is up against for standing for biblical truth.
So sad to see Christians being relentlessly persecuted in the USA.
I don’t understand why students don’t attend one of the thousands of colleges that don’t adhere to biblical beliefs.
Why attack the few left that do?
The left’s leadership wants us obliterated. The followers have been emboldened to think they have a right to live how they want within any associations they have (school, the mall, private companies). Our education system (primary upward) has been systematically dismantling our social contact – the US constitution.
This is not a right vs left issue. This is a right vs wrong issue. I can point to PLENTY of examples when “right leaning” people “have been emboldened to think they have a right to live how they want within any associations they have” (to use your own words).
And it’s exaggerated (not to mention an insulting generalization of teachers) to say our education system has been dismantling our constitution. If anything, we need more civics classes so that our students even know what’s in the constitution, because I sure do hear it misquoted and misused to conveniently support various viewpoints (on the right and left).
That being said, I do believe this was the correct ruling. Private religious schools should be allowed to openly state and practice their beliefs; these students who disagree should go elsewhere.
Private religious schools should be allowed to openly state and practice their beliefs, but they should not receive federal funding when those beliefs exclude, minimize and harm people in a federally protected class.
Additionally, in the example we have from the life of Christ- I don’t see how this is fitting at all- Jesus welcomed “sinners” and loved them to change when change was needed. He called out the religious elite who piled on burdens and regulations.
Christian schools are largely ways for conservative people to protect their children from “the world” rather than follow Jesus’ example of teaching them how to live in it, and love people.
“Why attack the few left that do?”
Because they follow biblical beliefs, that is what evil does. They only want acceptance, tolerance, inclusion, as long as it aligns with what they believe in, serves their personnel needs, and will do the exact opposite to anything that follows God’s Laws. Their goal is to destroy/corrupt/influence how Christians practice their faith and serve God.
I wouldn’t seek to attend a Muslim school, knowing their beliefs, and then sue them that they didn’t accommodate my beliefs.
I know many many faithful LGBTQ+ christians- and their faith is deep and strong. Being gay does not preclude anyone from following Christ, much to the chagrin of the white american evangelical church.
“I know many many faithful LGBTQ+ christians-and their faith is deep and strong.”
Do they follow what Jesus taught on marriage?
4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, 5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
6 But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.
7 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; 8 And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. 9 What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
This applies to heterosexual Christians as well, since any sexual activity (adultery) outside of marriage, is a sin. As faithful Christians we are to live as God commands, not as our hearts desire.
Phrases like “White American evangelical church” make it clear that you’re just throwing out the typical progressive talking point accusations and that you suffer from an extreme cultural myopia. The majority of churches throughout history and around the world (which are largely non-white) do not approve of homosexual behavior because they understand that the teachings of scripture are clearly against it. You cannot actively engage in same sex sexual relationships and be a Christian at the same time.
Christian education is under enough pressure as it stands now in the U.S. The last thing it needs are law suits from students who do not hold a Christian world-view.
LBGTQ++ students can go to the one of the zillion well-funded public schools in the U.S.
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