News & Politics

Christian Colleges Demand a Say in Lawsuit Aiming to Gut Religious Exemption

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Late last month, 33 current and former students at federally-funded Christian colleges and universities launched a historic attack on religious freedom by filing a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Education (DoE). The lawsuit, Hunter et al. v. Department of Education, claims the DoE violated the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution by granting religious exemptions to Christian institutions that allegedly “discriminate” against “sexual and gender minorities.”

Since President Joe Biden has signaled his hostility to religious freedom protections like the religious exemption in Title IX, the DoE seems likely to cave on this issue. However, three federally-funded Christian schools — Corban University, William Jessup University, and Phoenix Seminary — have filed a motion to intervene in the case.

The Christian colleges are asking the Oregon district court for the right to defend the religious exemption that allows them to operate according to their convictions while also receiving federal funds, allowing students to receive federal financial aid.

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“This lawsuit wants the federal government to tell Christian schools, ‘To continue accepting students who have federal financial aid, all you have to do is to start acting contrary to your own beliefs.’ That’s neither reasonable nor constitutional,” David Cortman, senior counsel and vice president of U.S. litigation at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Christian law firm representing the colleges, said in a statement.

“No court should grant a radical request to rewrite federal law and strong-arm religious colleges by stripping their students of much-needed financial aid,” Cortman added. “For that reason, we are asking the court to let our clients intervene in this lawsuit so that they and their students can defend their freedoms under federal law and the Constitution.”

In the lawsuit, the student plaintiffs ask the court to prevent the DoE from granting further religious exemptions to Title IX regarding LGBT issues, to rescind all such religious exemptions that currently apply, to mandate that the DoE treat LGBT-themed Title IX complaints at religious schools the same way it does elsewhere, and to require the DoE to prevent the “discrimination” allegedly at issue.

If the court or the DoE caves to the activists’ demands, it would destroy the long-established protections in Title IX that prevent discrimination against religious schools. However, no religious school that stands to lose federal funding in the case is yet a party to Hunter v. Department of Education.

“The Religious Exemption does not protect any party to this lawsuit. And none of the current parties face the loss of federal funding, intrusion upon their religious belief, or violations of their rights were Plaintiffs’ lawsuit successful,” the motion to intervene argues. The Christian colleges at issue do “have all this at stake. They are the direct beneficiaries of the Religious Exemption. Without it, Religious Schools—and their students—would lose access to vital federal educational funds. They have a right to intervene.”

The Christian colleges note that their “sincere religious beliefs conflict with application of Title IX to the extent that Title IX’s definition of ‘sex’ is interpreted to include ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity.’ As such, Religious Schools directly benefit from the Religious Exemption, and disposing of this action could significantly impair their statutory and constitutional rights.”

“The Court should not assess the Religious Exemption’s constitutionality without hearing from the very institutions the exemption was designed to protect,” the motion argues.

Corban University, William Jessup University, and Phoenix Seminary “hold and teach Christian doctrines, including ancient and perennial beliefs regarding sex, gender, marriage, and sexual morality. Specifically, Religious Schools believe and teach that sexual activity should only occur in the context of a lifelong marriage between one man and one woman. Religious Schools also believe and teach that God wonderfully and immutably creates each human person as either male or female, and that each person should live in accordance with their biological sex.”

The Christian colleges argue that if the court grants the student plaintiffs’ demands, such a policy would prevent the schools from teaching classes, preaching in chapel, publishing policies and codes of conduct, counseling, and maintaining sex-segregated facilities and athletic teams according to their sincerely-held beliefs.

“Targeting religious schools hurts the students and families who desire to pursue their education in places that share their faith and values,” ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker argued. “These schools should be allowed to defend their and their students’ long-recognized freedoms under federal law and the First Amendment.”

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The motion to intervene notes that the student plaintiffs opposed the Christian colleges’ attempt to intervene in the case. Of course, the LGBT activists did so — they hope that the court or the Biden administration will cave. They don’t want colleges that actually have skin in the game involved in the case, because those colleges will fight to preserve their rights.

If the Oregon District Court is going to rule on the religious exemption in Title IX, it should allow the Christian colleges that stand to lose federal funding to defend themselves before the bench. Refusing this motion would be obscene.