A challenge of the U.S. Department of Education granting religious exemptions to faith-based schools that allow them to discriminate while receiving federal funding has been dismissed by a U.S. District Court judge.
Judge Ann Aiken of the U.S. District Court in Eugene, Ore., on Jan. 12 dismissed the case brought against the Department of Education by Elizabeth Hunter and 39 others who are members of the LGBTQ community claiming discrimination at the faith-based schools they attend or attended. Rather than suing the schools for discrimination, the group filed a class-action suit against the federal government for giving taxpayer money to schools that openly discriminate against LGBTQ persons.
The legal action was organized by a nonprofit called the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, or REAP.
REAP filed its lawsuit March 31, 2021, challenging Title IX exemptions granted to religious schools that received tax dollars through grants and scholarships.
Title IX currently applies to all schools that receive federal funding, including private religious institutions: “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.”
After the Education Amendments of 1972 were passed, discrimination based on pregnancy, sexual orientation and gender identity also became prohibited.
However, private religious institutions are allowed to request exemptions based on their religious beliefs. The REAP lawsuit argues that all schools that accept federal funds should adhere to the entirety of Title IX.
In a 40-page ruling, Judge Aiken said she had sifted through the hundreds of documents and hours of testimony submitted to the court and found the plaintiffs’ charges compelling.
“They allege that their schools have discriminated against them by, among other things, subjecting them to discipline (including expulsion), rejecting their applications for admission, and rescinding their admissions because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” she explained. “Plaintiffs seek to represent a class of ‘LGBTQ+ students who attend taxpayer-funded religious colleges and universities that openly discriminate against them in both policy and practice.’”
Three Christian universities — Corban University, William Jessup University, and Phoenix Seminary — joined together to ask the court to dismiss the case, which is the motion that was granted, in part.
The request to dismiss the case and the court’s actual ruling are complicated legal maneuvers related to plaintiffs’ standing to bring the suit and whether there is evidence of actual harm and reasonable redress for such harm.
“Defendants do not dispute that plaintiffs have been stigmatically injured.”
The case is “replete with allegations of religious schools’ unequal treatment of plaintiffs based on plaintiffs’ sexual orientation and gender identity,” Aiken wrote. “Defendants do not dispute that plaintiffs have been stigmatically injured.”
This is an important point because it states for the record that both the court and the Department of Education admit the LGBTQ students have suffered injury.
“The court finds that plaintiffs have satisfactorily alleged that the religious schools’ unequal treatment of plaintiffs is, at least in part, the result of defendants’ actions that have a determinative effect: Defendants’ determination — that the religious schools may obtain a religious exemption from complying with Title IX’s prohibition of discrimination — can be causally linked to the schools’ act of treating plaintiffs unequally. In the instances where individual plaintiffs had their complaints dismissed because their schools obtained a religious exemption, it is most especially so.”
Aiken further wrote: “An order requiring the rescinding of all prior religious exemptions to Title IX as applied to sexual and gender minority students; mandating that defendants treat Title IX complaints from sexual and gender minority students at all taxpayer-funded religious colleges in the same manner as complaints at nonreligious colleges; and requiring defendants to ensure that all federally funded educational institutions respect the sexual orientation and gender identity of plaintiffs would make plaintiffs whole. Accordingly, no speculative inferences are necessary here to conclude that the relief requested will result in the plaintiffs receiving the dignity and equal treatment they seek.”
However, Aiken ultimately dismissed the case on other legal grounds.
This has to do, in part, with amendments to the Title IX exemptions that the court found actually have tightened rather than loosened religious exemptions.
“Plaintiffs have not set forth allegations sufficient to show how a decision invalidating the 2020 rules would alter either the behavior of the religious schools or the outcomes of discrimination complaints or religious exemption requests filed with defendants under Title IX,” Aiken wrote.
The opinion dismissing the case goes point by point through five areas of accusation and determines that, as written, the case is not likely to succeed on its merits. Therefore, the motion to dismiss was granted.
The three Christian schools that brought the challenge are represented by the conservative legal advocacy firm Alliance Defending Freedom, one of two such organizations behind most of the recent religious practice challenges from the conservative evangelical viewpoint.
ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman said of the ruling: “A federal district court today rightly rejected an unfounded assault on the religious freedom of faith-based educational institutions. 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. A group of activists asked the court to strip that protection away from schools that educate the next generation and advance the common good. The court correctly concluded that Title IX’s religious liberty exemption doesn’t violate any of the plaintiffs’ claimed rights.”
REAP issued a statement saying: “The court determined the current unequal treatment of the student plaintiffs is caused by the federal government’s implementation of the religious exemption to Title IX. However, we are sad to report that despite this, the court also held that plaintiffs had not alleged a legal claim for which relief could be granted and has dismissed the lawsuit. Because of today’s decision, tens of thousands of LGBTQ students across the country remain subject to discrimination at universities receiving taxpayer money.”
Elizabeth Hunter, lead plaintiff in the case and graduate of Bob Jones University, said: “The government’s choice to ignore both the injustice done to me, and the injustice weaponized against hundreds of LGBTQ students is deeply disappointing. We deserve better, our country deserves better, and history deserves better.”
REAP is “currently considering … options for appeal,” the statement said.