This article was updated Monday evening, Aug. 14, to include new comments from Baylor President Linda Livingstone.
Baylor University recently asked for and was granted a federal religious exemption from charges of sexual harassment against LGBTQ students under Title IX — something it has not sought since 1976.
News of the exemption was first reported by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, which previously named Baylor in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education protesting federal funding of schools that openly discriminate against LGBTQ students.
In recent years, the Baptist-affiliated university has faced pressure from its religiously conservative base — particularly Texas Baptist pastors — while also facing calls for greater inclusion from students, alumni and faculty.
More than 3,000 members of the Baylor community signed a petition in 2019, urging Baylor to charter Gamma Alpha Upsilon, an LGBTQ-inclusive student group, and to support its LGBTQ students. While Gamma was not chartered, Baylor recently chartered its own organization, Prism.
The exemption request, sent May 1, said it was written in response to several complaints filed with the Office for Civil Rights in 2021. The complaints alleged Baylor violated Title IX when it denied the application for an official charter of the LGBTQ student organization Gamma Alpha Upsilon, its response to claims of sexual harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and its decision to deter reporting of LGBTQ events and protests in September and October of 2021.
“The university does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression per se, but it does regulate conduct that is inconsistent with the religious values and beliefs that are integral to its Christian faith and mission,” Baylor’s letter said. “Any asserted Title IX requirement that Baylor must allow sexual behavior outside of marital union between a man and a woman, or that contradicts the Baptist doctrine of marriage and the created distinction between men and women, is inconsistent with Baylor’s religious tenets, and the university is exempt from such requirement.”
A response from the Department of Education assured Baylor it was exempt from numerous provisions under Title IX, including sexual harassment, “to the extent that they are inconsistent with the university’s religious tenets.”
Not since 1976
The only other time Baylor filed a Title IX exemption request was in 1976, four years after the statute was passed. In that letter, the university sought to be exempt from laws that would have required Baylor to give temporary medical leave to women who were pregnant and not married and allow women pursuing religion and ministry degrees to have equal opportunity with men to scholarships and other education programs. The DOE also approved these requests.
Today, Baylor affords women and men equal opportunity in all areas of education and financial aid. But the university’s student code of conduct still describes “purity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman as the biblical norm” students are expected to uphold. “Temptations to deviate from this norm include both heterosexual sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior. It is thus expected that Baylor students will not participate in advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching.”
For a university to receive a religious exemption to Title IX protections, it must be controlled by a religious organization and specify the religious tenets and regulations that conflict with federal law, according to the DOE’s 2023 letter.
Critics of the Baylor exemption say the university does not meet the criteria for exemption because the school is not controlled by a religious body.
While Baylor previously was controlled by the Baptist General Convention of Texas, that changed in 1990. The Baylor board of trustees, working with then-President Herbert Reynolds, altered the school’s charter to make it a self-perpetuating board of regents. The BGCT previously elected all Baylor trustees but now elects only one-quarter of the board.
The step away from the BGCT was a response to the “1979 takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by political fundamentalists,” a 2005 Baylor Magazine article said, and Reynolds said at the time he did not want Baptists “more interested in indoctrination than education and enlightenment” taking over the university.
“Baylor is ‘controlled by’ a predominantly Baptist board of regents, which operates within the Christian-oriented aims and ideals of Baptists.”
While Baylor’s 1976 letter to the DOE says the BGCT controls Baylor, the 2023 letter states, “Baylor is ‘controlled by’ a predominantly Baptist board of regents, which operates within the Christian-oriented aims and ideals of Baptists.”
Critics of Baylor’s most recent religious exemption request argue that because an external church does not control the university, the board of regents cannot be classified as a religious organization.
“The university’s representations in its letter that its board of regents is a religious organization that adheres to mandatory creeds is also inconsistent with what it means to be Baptist,” active members of BU Bears for All, Skye Perryman, Jackie Baugh Moore and Tracy Teaff, said in a statement to BNG. “Baptists do not adhere to mandatory creeds. We are disappointed that the university continues to pursue a course that disregards the fundamental equality and dignity of LGBTQ people.”
The three said their group remains “committed to supporting all people, including LGBTQ people, in the Baylor family. We hope and pray for a day when the university will recognize that faith should not discriminate.”
The new exemption to sexual harassment claims based on sexual orientation and gender identity has caused an uproar among allies and LGBTQ people in the Baylor family and sparked heated discussions on Twitter and Instagram.
Alumni and current Baylor students expressed shock, as the university recently chartered its first LGBTQ student organization, Prism. Alex Gonzalez, former vice president of Gamma Alpha Upsilon, class of 2023, said it hurt to see Baylor seek this exemption, especially after seeing the university begin to take steps in the right direction.
Gonzalez said the Baylor administration needs to decide if it wants to be viewed as a respected Tier One research institution and Big 12 college, or a small Christian college, “because when stuff like this comes out, it just tarnishes its reputation.”
Baylor Assistant Vice President for Media and Public Relations Lori Fogleman said Baylor is responding to the “expanded definition of sexual harassment” under Title IX from the Biden administration, which includes discrimination against LGBTQ people.
“Baylor has taken and will continue to take meaningful steps to ensure members of the LGBTQ community are loved, cared for and protected as a part of the Baylor family,” Fogleman said. “Further, the university remains committed to promoting and maintaining an educational environment in which students can learn and grow in accordance with our Christian mission and our call to love our neighbors as ourselves.”
Elizabeth Bention, class of 2021 and former Gamma president, said Baylor talks about how much it cares about its LGBTQ students, but the words do not match the actions. Benton said she is afraid for what happens next now that Baylor has these exemptions.
“If anybody comes to them with any kind of harassment and the school knows that person identifies with the LGBTQ community, it could get completely written off.”
“It opens the door for discrimination throughout Baylor,” Benton said. “If anybody comes to them with any kind of harassment and the school knows that person identifies with the LGBTQ community, it could get completely written off.”
Benton said she is afraid Gamma “might be pushed back into the shadows” after all the progress it has made over the years.
Current Gamma President Katherine Nicole Ayers said it might feel scary for new and returning LGBTQ students to begin class next week, but there is a wide range of support for the LGBTQ community in the student body and faculty. “It’s never as hopeless as it seems,” she said.
“A level of mistrust is warranted from LGBTQ people, and maybe we have to wait and see if (Baylor) enacts policies directly against us, but our fears are justified based on experiences with leadership and particular student groups on Baylor’s campus,” Ayers said.
Anthony Blake Clark, class of 2014, said the most astonishing component of the letter was to see current President Linda Livingstone’s name signed below the request. “I thought things were moving in the right direction, so it was disappointing to see her seemingly taking the lead on this,” he said.
“I thought things were moving in the right direction, so it was disappointing to see her seemingly taking the lead on this.”
“There’s a huge contingent of students who are being very poorly served psychologically and spiritually by the environment that they find themselves in,” Clark said. “Current students need to keep making their opinions known, … and it might be tiring, and it might be exhausting, and you might feel discouraged, but keep making noise, because that’s the only way the ball is going to move forward.”
Grayson Jackon, class of 2020, said when he came out his senior year, he received support from many students and faculty. He believes it’s the administration that has not been on the same page as the rest of the Baylor family in terms of accepting LGBTQ people.
Baylor “might lawfully discriminate just by seeking these exemptions, but just because you’re exempt doesn’t make it right, doesn’t make it Christian, doesn’t make it ethical, doesn’t make it moral to do so,” Jackson said. “This might shield the institution from litigation, but it sets the standard for the community being a welcoming place back, because it betrays that very same attitude that they’re trying to portray to the rest of the public.”
Paul J. Williams, class of 1983, advised the LGBTQ Baylor family to remember Faculty Senate and Student Senatevoted to support Gamma’s charter, and there’s a large group of alumni who are fighting for more inclusion at Baylor.
“I want Baylor to understand that regardless of the stance that they’re taking, … the LGBTQ community has garnered so much support from alumni, from faculty, from current students,” Williams said. “I dare say that the administration is in the minority on this issue. And we are not giving up.”
Monday statement from Livingstone
On Monday afternoon, Aug. 14, Baylor President Livingstone issued a statement charging that some media outlets are misrepresenting what has happened.
“Unfortunately, our acknowledgement from the DOE is being characterized publicly by some as an indication that Baylor will now stop or modify how we provide Title IX or other protections to students, including those who identify as LGBTQ,” she said. “This is completely untrue.
“There will be NO CHANGES to Baylor’s current practices or policies related to sexual harassment and other forms of sexual and interpersonal conduct resulting from this assertion of our existing religious exemptions. Our Office of Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX will continue to investigate sexual harassment allegations or related complaints and investigate these thoroughly and fairly. We have taken and will continue to take meaningful steps to ensure all students — including members of the LGBTQ community — are loved, cared for and protected as a part of the Baylor Family.”
She called the DOE exemption request “a narrow, yet complicated legal matter that has implications for all religious-based universities, not just Baylor. Accordingly, we are responding to current considerations by the DOE to move to an expanded definition of sexual harassment, which could infringe on Baylor’s rights under the U.S. Constitution, as well as Title IX, to conduct our affairs in a manner consistent with our religious beliefs.”
She added: “Be assured that we expect all members of the Baylor family to be treated with respect and dignity. This institution is fully committed to promoting and maintaining an educational environment in which all students — including those who identify as LGBTQ — can learn and grow in accordance with our Christian mission and our call to love our neighbors as ourselves within a caring community.”
Emily Cousins is a Baylor University graduate who is a former Clemons Fellow with BNG. She lives in New Haven, Conn.
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