The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) jumped into the legal fray over LGBT rights and religious liberties on Wednesday when it filed a motion to join a lawsuit against the US Department of Education (DOE) as a codefendant.
Thirty-three current and former students from 20-plus religiously affiliated colleges filed the suit against the DOE in March to prevent the agency from granting religious exemptions from federal antidiscrimination laws. Eighteen of the schools are CCCU members, including Dordt Univeristy, Lipscomb Univeristy, Messiah Univeristy, Nyack College, and Toccoa Falls College. The schools all have policies prohibiting student sexual activity and statements about Christian sexual ethics.
A newly founded LGBT advocacy group, the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), says these policies are discriminatory and create abusive and unsafe conditions for LGBT students. REAP is arguing that the religious exemptions to civil rights and federal education laws should be abolished.
If the exemption to Title IX is eliminated, religious schools with policies deemed discriminatory would not be eligible for federal funds.
CCCU president Shirley Hoogstra said the lawsuit is frivolous and the Christian colleges and universities are clearly eligible for religious exemptions.
“CCCU institutions subscribe to sincerely held biblical beliefs,” she said in a statement, “which include specific religious convictions around human sexuality and gender, and are transparent about their policies and behavior guidelines, which students voluntarily agree to when they choose to attend the institution.”
The CCCU has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The motion cites multiple US Supreme Court rulings that protect religious schools from being deprived of indirect financial aid on the basis of an institution’s religious identity. In 2002, the court ruled 5-4 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that a state school-voucher program allowing parents to send their children to religious schools if they wanted, did not violate First Amendment prohibitions against “respecting an establishment of religion.”
In 2020, the court ruled 5-4 in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Court ruled 5-4 that religious schools cannot be excluded from a state scholarship program that provides aid to students attending private schools.
The new advocacy group has said it hopes the lawsuit will call attention to the issue of religious exemptions in the Equality Act, the antidiscrimination legislation currently under consideration in the US Senate. One of the major points of disagreement over the bill is how it will balance religious liberty with concerns that LGBT people are not protected by current law. The fate of the Equality Act is uncertain, but legislators could attempt to win more votes for the bill by including exemptions, which REAP opposes.
“When taxpayer-funded religious institutions require sexual and gender minority students to hide their identity out of fear, or to behave contrary to their fundamental sexual or gender identity, the unsurprising consequences are intense pain, loneliness and self-harm,” the suit says.
Multiple plaintiffs say they experienced mental distress from bullying at Christian colleges and some claim they were subjected to conversion therapy.
The CCCU lawyers dispute the evidence that sexual ethics policies cause students harm.
According to the court filings, the association “denies that any of its Christian College or University members abuse or provide unsafe conditions to thousands of LGBTQ+ students, or injure them mind, body, or soul, but rather seek to minister, support, and care for them physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Plaintiffs cite no evidence to support their allegations of abuse and harm.”
Hoogstra said in her statement that the CCCU takes reports of student experience seriously and said the schools are “committed to learning, growing, and deepening our understanding of how we can provide and strengthen support for all students,” including those who disagree with the colleges’ stated beliefs and those who identify as LGBT.
“CCCU institutions should be places where all students feel safe, supported, and welcome,” Hoogstra said.