WASHINGTON—The U.S. Department of Education has agreed to create a searchable database to publicize which Christian colleges and universities have applied for exemptions from a 44-year-old gender-equality law.
The announcement comes a month after the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group, accused Christian institutions of “hidden discrimination” for obtaining Title IX waivers. The same day HRC released its report, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and seven other Democratic senators asked the agency to increase transparency around the exemptions, which they said “allow for discrimination under the guise of religious liberty.”
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and is best known for requiring equity between men’s and women’s athletic teams. But in 2014, the Department of Education expanded its interpretation of the word “sex” to include gender identity—meaning, for example, a male student who identifies as female can file a complaint against an institution that does not allow the student to live in female-only housing.
“The department took it upon itself to step into a legislative role, usurp the role of Congress, and rewrite Title IX,” Greg Baylor, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), told me. “When Congress wrote that law, it obviously did not intend that colleges receiving money from the government should allow males who think they're female to shower with other women.”
The new Title IX definition went unnoticed by most of the public, but dozens of schools—in part due to ADF’s advice—applied for and received religious exemptions from Title IX, which have been allowed since the law’s inception.
Last year, WORLD reported on the case of Union University, the country’s oldest Southern Baptist college and one of the institutions that has obtained a waiver. Union President Samuel “Dub” Oliver said the school has no regrets about seeking the narrowly tailored exemption and supports transparency.
“We want all prospective students and their families to know of our commitment to biblical truth,” Oliver told me in an email. “What concerns me is the tone in the language used by the senators who wrote to [Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine] Lahmon. It does seem as though the senators are targeting us for our sincerely held religious beliefs.”
The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), which represents 152 North American institutions, said its member schools provide prospective students with codes of conduct before they enroll, so claims of an alleged hidden agenda are disingenuous.
“Institutions that have received an exemption are simply following the law,” the CCCU said in a statement. “What is unfortunate in this recent development is not that the list of schools that received an exemption is being made public, rather that the exemptions are being portrayed as something nefarious.”
Information regarding institutions that have applied for and received waivers is already publicly available, but it previously required interested parties to file a Freedom of Information Act request. Baylor said creating a website with a searchable database and letters to and from administrators is intended to “put a target on the backs of these schools.”
“Frankly, this is a shameful thing the department has done,” Baylor said.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chair of the House higher education subcommittee, called the department’s decision another example of bureaucrats advancing their own agenda instead of faithfully executing the law.
“The First Amendment is clear that religious practice is protected as a fundamental right, and the Department of Education should not be attempting to intimidate institutions from exercising that right,” Foxx, a former community college president, said in a statement. “I am committed to focused oversight on these issues and strengthening legal protections for Americans exercising their right to practice religion freely.”
Most statutes allow religious exemptions for anyone who needs them, but the Title IX exemption only applies to those who ask for it. Title IX makes provisions for military training institutions, schools with a history of admitting only one gender, and religious schools.
The statute explicitly says it does not apply if it violates the religious tenets of an institution’s controlling religious organization, but some religious schools—such as Wheaton College and Cedarville University—do not have controlling denominations. While the Department of Education has approved most waiver applications so far, some unaffiliated schools’ requests have gone unanswered.