U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and four other members of Congress wrote to the U.S. Department of Education Sept. 5 seeking clarification on the recent waiver granted Baylor University allowing discrimination against LGBTQ students on campus.
The renewed exemption granted Baylor “is not only unprecedented but is a blatant attempt to interfere and pressure the department to stop an ongoing sex-based harassment investigation,” the legislators charged. “That is unacceptable.”
Joining Schiff in the letter were Reps. Mark Takano, D-Calif.; Joaquin Castro, D-Texas; Veronica Escobar, D-Texas; and Greg Casar, D-Texas.
The letter was sent four days after Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — who has no connection to Baylor — held a news conference in Waco with Baylor President Linda Livingstone and three days after Cruz posted a selfie in a skybox at Baylor’s Saturday football game against Texas State University.
Cruz’s prominent appearance on campus raised eyebrows among some Baylor students, faculty and alumni because he is being challenged in his bid for reelection by a Baylor alumnus who is a former captain of the football team. Cruz also is stridently anti-LGBTQ inclusion.
U.S. Rep. Collin Allred, D-Texas, trolled Cruz’s social media post with his own brief video posted from outside McLane Stadium on game day. “Once a Bear, always a Bear,” he wrote. “Traveling across the state today and I had to stop at Baylor University to wish Baylor Football good luck ahead of the first game of the season.”
From its founding, Baylor and its alumni have played key roles in state and federal government. The university has produced five Texas governors and countless legislators of all political persuasions, ranging from Democrat Ann Richards to Libertarian Rand Paul.
Ironically, on the day of the legislators’ letter, another high-profile Baylor alumnus, Ken Paxton, sat before his peers in the Texas Senate facing an impeachment trial.
While Baylor’s internal struggle over how far to go in LGBTQ inclusion is not strictly a partisan divide, this week’s events illustrate how important Baylor’s identity is in a state shaped both by religious conservatism and explosive politics.
Baylor is by far the largest private university in the state and boasts a loyal alumni base who are likely to be consistent voters. Allred’s standing as a former Baylor football star is one of his selling points, just as Cruz’s record of blocking LGBTQ advances is a selling point to religious conservatives who want Baylor to hold the line against inclusion.
What’s different now is that Baylor’s recent request for a Title IX exemption from the Department of Education — to keep receiving federal funds via scholarships and grants — is based on a claim that the university’s board of regents is, effectively, a church.
“Recent reports suggest that Baylor University should not be allowed to claim religious exemptions because it is no longer controlled by a religious organization,” the letter states. “We thus also urge the department to investigate these claims to determine whether Baylor University should be allowed to avail itself of religious-based exemptions from Title IX.”
“Recent reports suggest that Baylor University should not be allowed to claim religious exemptions because it is no longer controlled by a religious organization.”
That concern has to do with the fact that Baylor no longer is governed by the Baptist General Convention of Texas but is led by a self-perpetuating board of regents.
The university’s most recent exemption request says, “Baylor is ‘controlled by’ a predominantly Baptist board of regents, which operates within the Christian-oriented aims and ideals of Baptists.”
Critics of the exemption claim the board of regents is not the same as a “religious organization” required by the Department of Education to grant religious exemptions. The Congressmen agree with that critique.
What’s also different is that the Department of Education has a pending sexual harassment claim against Baylor from two years ago that has not been adjudicated. The legislators’ letter urges the department to investigate and resolve that claim before granting Baylor any more exemptions.
“Given the very public and troubling history of sexual assault at Baylor University, rather than seek an exemption from protecting against sex-based harassment, including sexual harassment, within the institution, Baylor University should instead be focused on improving and strengthening its response to harassment,” the letter states. “Baylor University actively seeking to invoke this exemption sends an alarming message that it wants harassment to go unchecked.”
One of the primary concerns cited in the letter is a need to understand clearly the scope of the exemptions granted to Baylor.
“When Congress enacted Title IX in 1972, it created a liberal and expansive process for religiously controlled education institutions to notify the government when specific tenets of religious faith require exemption from discrete parts of Title IX,” the letter explains. “Congress never intended this process to allow for campuses where sex-based harassment and discrimination are broadly sanctioned or encouraged. Baylor University should take this opportunity to redirect its resources to ensuring the safety of its students, rather than abusing the Title IX exemption process that has been administered successfully for half a century.”
The Congressional letter was sent to Secretary of Education Miguel A. Cardona and Office for Civil Rights Assistant Secretary Catherine Lhamon. It was endorsed by the American Atheists, End Rape on Campus, Equality California, Family Equality, Human Rights Campaign, Interfaith Alliance, It’s on Us, Keshet, Know Your IX, National Council of Jewish Women, National Women’s Law Center, SIECUS, and Students Engaged in Advancing Texas.
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