By Bob Allen
Eight Democratic senators including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and former Saturday Night Live star Al Franken asked the Department of Education in a letter Dec. 18 to make public the names of colleges and universities asking for Title IX waivers that allow them to discriminate against LGBT students.
Senators Ron Wyden, Patty Murray, Jeff Merkley, Edward Markey, Barbara Boxer and Tammy Baldwin joined in the letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan asking for greater transparency in the waiver process to Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.
“We are concerned these waivers allow for discrimination under the guise of religious beliefs,” the senators said. “Already we have seen this same path used in our legal system to undermine benefits for women, and used to facilitate discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The Column, a nonprofit LGBT media organization in Minnesota, recently reported the names of nearly three dozen private Christian colleges and universities asking the government to waive Title IX restrictions compiled from documents obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed in July. More than a dozen of the schools are affiliated with Baptist state conventions.
Similar language recommended to Baptist schools by Southern Baptist Convention attorney Jim Guenther sought waiver from Title IX provisions that “would not be consistent with the [Southern Baptist] Convention’s religious tenets regarding marriage, sex outside of marriage, sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy and abortion.”
Schools began requesting such waivers after the Obama administration issued guidance in 2014 that the Title IX discrimination prohibition “extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.”
In September the Christian Legal Society hosted a webinar for religious schools and colleges offering guidance on same-sex issues in light of the June Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states, along with a white paper and sample policies to safeguard against potential litigation.
According to The Column, total enrollment of schools that have received Title IX waivers tops 80,000 students and nearly $130 million in federal student aid and research dollars. The senators asked the Education Department to publish the waiver requests and responses on a searchable website accessible to the public.
“At the very minimum, we believe students, parents and taxpayers have a right to know when institutions of higher education — as recipients of tax dollars — seek and receive exemptions under Title IX as well as the justifications for those exemptions,” they said.
Soulforce, an LGBT rights organization founded in 1998 by Mel White — a ghostwriter for Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham and Pat Robertson before he came out as gay — held a strategy and action call Dec. 23 with students at schools that have received or requested religious exemptions to Title IX.
Soulforce has visited 13 of the schools during its Equality Ride, a periodic bus tour where young adults travel to conservative Christian schools to discuss homosexuality with students and administrators.
“We have spent more time debating with school presidents about their ‘right to discriminate’ than the substance of the impact of their discrimination,” said a Soulforce fundraising letter.
In the future Soulforce, now led by one-time Equality Ride co-director Haven Herrin, plans to organize students on campuses affected by the Title IX waivers to raise awareness about their impact on students and faculty.