Forty-three religious universities applied for waivers in 2015 that will allow them to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Department of Education approved twenty-two of those requests, and the rest remain pending, BuzzFeed reported.
The number of schools seeking these waivers has spiked in recent years, jumping from one school in 2012 to 43 this year, according to a new report from the Human Rights Campaign. The waivers grant schools exemption from full compliance with Title IX, the 1972 federal law that bans publicly funded universities from discriminating on the basis of sex.
Guidelines from the Department of Education suggest that Title IX protects students against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The 1972 law contains a significant loophole: a provision that allows an educational institution controlled by a religious organization to request exemptions from any part of the law that conflicts with religious tenets.
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Schools have sought exemptions to prevent women from entering men’s seminaries or to ban unmarried faculty, a Department of Education official told BuzzFeed.
But recently, schools have pursued exemptions in order to ban or discriminate against LGBTQ faculty and students, supported by religiously affiliated legal firms like the Alliance Defending Freedom.
“Among the teachings of the Bible and the tenets of the Free Methodist Church followed by the University, are that God created two sexes, male and female; that marriage is between one man and one woman; and that extramarital sex, premarital sex, and the practice of homosexuality are sinful behaviors and therefore prohibited,” Brent Ellis, president of Spring Arbor University, a Christian school in Michigan, wrote in a letter to the Department of Education requesting a religious exemption.
Ellis went on to say he was requesting that the Department of Education “allow the University religious freedom to discriminate on the basis of sex, including gender identity, and sexual orientation, in regard to housing and living arrangements, restrooms, lockers, and athletics.”
The Department of Education granted the university an exemption in June 2014. The university received millions in federal funding in the 2013-2014 school year, according to BuzzFeed.
A group of senators pushed back last week, saying in a letter to the Department of Education that there should be a publicly searchable database of Title IX exemption requests and responses, making the entire process more transparent. It’s difficult, the lawmakers argued, to know which schools have received a Title IX exemption. The signers of the letter included Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Al Franken (D-MN), Ed Markey (D-MA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
“We are concerned these waivers allow for discrimination under the guise of religious freedom,” the senators wrote in the letter. “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.”