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Biden administration signals intent to defend religious exemption for schools

It appears the Biden administration intends to defend the religious exemptions granted to faith-based schools that allow them to bypass federal laws against discrimination toward LGBTQ students while still receiving federal grants.

The Washington Post broke the story June 9 that the Justice Department filed a court document the day before saying it can “vigorously” defend its use of a religious exemption to Title IX regulations. The filing says the administration “shares the same ultimate objective” as the Christian schools named in the case, Hunter v. the U.S. Department of Education.

That news didn’t go down well with Paul Carlos Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, which filed the class-action suit in March naming 25 faith-based schools as examples of the problem.

The filing says the administration “shares the same ultimate objective” as the Christian schools named in the case.

“What this means is that the government is now aligning itself with anti-LGBTQ hate in order to vigorously defend an exemption that everyone knows causes severe harm to LGBTQ students using taxpayer money,” Southwick told the Post. “It will make our case harder if the federal government plans to vigorously defend it like they have indicated.”

Three Baptist universities are among 25 schools named in the suit: Baylor University in Waco, Texas; Union University in Jackson, Tenn.; and Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Okla. The suit does not target the schools directly but instead takes aim at the Department of Education’s practice of allowing religious exemptions to Title IX protections.

Title IX of the U.S. Department of Education code states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Title IX applies to a wide array of campus programs and services, including athletics, recruitment, enrollment, financial aid, housing and more.

The law is perhaps best known for its application to college athletics, where it requires that women and men be provided equitable opportunities to participate in sports and that female and male student-athletes receive athletics scholarship dollars proportional to their participation.

However, faith-based schools are allowed to request a religious exemption from parts of the law “to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.” Requests for exemption must be submitted in writing to the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights. Those requests from faith-based schools typically address sexual orientation and gender identity issues.

Those requests from faith-based schools typically address sexual orientation and gender identity issues.

The new statement from the Justice Department came in response to a request to the court from the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, whose members include some of the schools named. The council told the court in May that its members didn’t trust the Biden administration to adequately defend their beliefs and said the Democratic administration “may be openly hostile to them.”

Thus, the council asked to intervene and be named a party to the case. The Justice Department, in its filing, says that is not necessary and would only complicate things. The council and its member schools cannot show “compelling” reasons for not trusting the federal government to defend its own policies, the filing said.

The schools “cite a variety of statements and actions taken by the current administration regarding protecting LGBTQ+ individuals from discrimination in a variety of contexts and then leap to concluding that ‘the current defendants will not defend the religious exemption as vigorously as religious schools,’” the Department of Justice wrote, “or may even be ‘openly hostile’ to defending the religious exemption as applied to LGBTQ+ students.”

It further explains: “To be sure, the Department of Education is conducting a comprehensive review of its regulations implementing Title IX pursuant to Executive Order 14,021, which sets forth the current administration’s policy on guaranteeing an educational environment free from discrimination on the basis of sex. But neither the administration’s stated policy positions nor the department’s review of existing regulations abrogate the government’s duty to defend federal statutes and regulations in court as a legal matter.”

Despite these protestations, neither the Justice Department nor the Education Department has made known its legal strategy to address the lawsuit.

 

Related article:

25 faith-based schools named in LGBTQ discrimination case against Department of Education