Keeping Faith Without Hurting LGBT Students

Some conservative Christian colleges do not let young people be in same-sex relationships. The government should keep allowing this, but schools also have an obligation to be more empathetic.

Nguyen Huy Kham / Reuters

Creating and sustaining a religious community is essential to the educational mission of Christian colleges and universities. They typically rely on codes of conduct that govern the behavior of students and faculty in line with their religious teachings. At many Christian schools, these codes include prohibitions against some kinds of sexual conduct and expression, including same-sex romantic relationships.

Certain private religious institutions are legally allowed to maintain these policies, which might mean they refuse to hire faculty in same-sex relationships or deny housing for married same-sex students. Many of these schools accept tuition in the form of federal and state grants and loans. That’s led critics, including the Human Rights Campaign, Campus Pride, and some LGBT students, to see these exemptions as discrimination hidden behind religion—and even worse, government-subsidized discrimination.

Students whose expression of sexual or gender identity conflicts with their campus’s conduct code face a difficult and often painful situation. They may reconsider their place at the university, their faith, their relationships, and their future. Fears of expulsion and shame may prevent these students from talking openly to school officials, which leaves them vulnerable to abuse and lacking adequate community support. No response to these scenarios can erase all the conflicts and heartbreak between students, families, and academic communities, but through a model of communication, mutual respect, and dignity, schools can create a healthier environment for everyone.

Both conservatives and liberals tend to approach the issue in absolute and uncompromising terms, but there are ways to resolve this conflict that will allow for both religious freedom and protections for LGBT students while minimizing further litigation. By increasing transparency about Title IX exemptions and codes of conduct, easing the transfer process for students who cannot abide by the codes of conduct, and taking a strict stance on bullying and abuse, religious schools can retain their distinctive mission while protecting students.

Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, schools are prohibited from discriminating based on sex. In recent years, the Department of Education has interpreted this prohibition to include gender identity. However, the law allows exemptions to this standard, and others listed under Title IX, for religious schools that apply. These exemptions are a way of balancing two increasingly competing American values: equal protection under the law and the free exercise of religion.

The exemptions allow religious schools to cultivate communities consistent with some of their core beliefs. The Christian understanding of marriage is not a fringe view taken by a few churches in the United States. In the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, marriage between men and women is a sacrament. For conservative evangelicals, it is instituted in the sacred scriptures by Christ himself and has been taught by the church for thousands of years.

Most students voluntarily select these colleges because they want to be educated in a community that shares their values. Some go to prepare for ministry, but most don’t. Instead, they tend to be motivated by the centrality of their faith to their identity. The opportunity to study with other believers, to live and practice their faith together, is a rich, formative experience that can expand students’ understanding of their beliefs. Most of these schools also challenge students’ religious beliefs, helping them move toward a more thoughtful, civil, and robust faith—the kind of faith that prepares them for participation in a diverse world. In a society that is losing so many of the mediating institutions that are essential for a flourishing culture, religious higher education continues to play a vital role, as David Brooks has recently argued.

Title IX doesn’t just allow exemptions for conservative Christians. Muslims, Jewish, and Mormon institutions are equally eligible to apply, as are any other religious institutions. At their best, these religious schools teach students about the diversity of belief in America while supporting students in their study of religion. That’s preparation for living out pluralism later in life: These are communities of robust faith practicing their beliefs, which can be good training for living at peace with neighbors who do not share those beliefs and may even find them offensive.

Schools were concerned that if this bill passed, similar laws would be established in other states.

As societal views of sex, gender, and sexual orientation have shifted, an increasing number of LGBT advocacy groups have started lobbying against the Title IX exemptions on the grounds that they’re a license for religious schools to discriminate. Some have pushed for a change to the law: A recent bill proposed in the California legislature, SB 1146, recommended restrictions to religious exemptions. Legislators like the bill’s sponsor, Ricardo Lara, argued that schools should be required to publicly declare when they apply for exemptions, should not receive state grants if they discriminate, and should be subject to private lawsuits over such discrimination. If SB 1146 had been enacted in this form, it may have eliminated religious exemptions from the discrimination provisions in California’s Equity in Higher Education Act, which require equal treatment in education regardless of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, among other classifications. Because of California’s influence on national politics, many religious schools were concerned that if this bill passed, similar laws would be established in other states. This could affect schools’ tax-exempt status or even accreditation, a fear that many in Christian higher education seem to share.

Several groups opposed the legislation and tried to work with Senator Lara on a more mutually acceptable bill. The Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities asked Lara to restrict the bill so that it would only require religious schools to disclose their exemptions, as opposed to ending these exceptions. Similarly, the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities strongly opposed the bill because of its potential effect on students’ ability to choose religious schools. On August 10th, Lara announced he would amend the bill to only focus on the disclosure provision and a requirement to report instances in which schools expel students for morality-code violations.

Christian colleges, especially in California, will likely see Lara’s change of direction as a hard-fought victory, but this may be a temporary reprieve. As the Los Angeles Times reported, Lara intends to pursue further legislation next year, when he may reintroduce the provisions that he dropped this year: “The goal for me has always been to shed the light on the appalling and unacceptable discrimination against LGBT students at these private religious institutions throughout California,” he said. If Lara believes these schools are guilty of “appalling and unacceptable discrimination,” it is difficult to imagine him or others who share his views ever seeing these religious exemptions as legitimate and beneficial to public diversity.

While efforts like SB 1146 would be harmful to religious freedom in higher education, they highlight legitimate concerns about how religious schools treat LGBT students. One of the challenges for the current system is accommodating students who find themselves stuck at a school with strong religious foundations with which they no longer identify. People often change their views on important issues while they’re in college, and religious students are no different. Students might choose to attend a religious university because they want an education and community that will support their spiritual convictions. But outside of the influence of their parents and home church, they may begin to change their views. A university that was a wonderful fit for a freshman may feel constraining and hostile only a few years later. An educational environment should never feel hostile for any student, but for those with views that are in the minority on campus, it is hard not to feel embattled. And this feeling is only intensified when that view is tied to a student’s sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

The school may believe it is enforcing agreed-upon values. But to students, this may seem confusing or hypocritical.

In some of the worst cases, students have felt afraid to talk with school officials about sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation for fear of being expelled. While Christian universities may not go so far as to kick students out, many prohibit same-sex relationships or sexual activity, which some LGBT students believe are intrinsically tied to their identity. The school may believe it is enforcing the agreed-upon values of the community. But from the student’s perspective, this may seem confusing or hypocritical: They are being told by some schools that they can “be” gay, so long as they don’t “act” gay.

Critics of these religious schools often point to the 1983 Supreme Court ruling that Bob Jones University could not ban interracial dating if it wanted to keep its tax-exempt status. The school argued that the ban was part of their religious beliefs and thus a protected practice. But the courts decided that the interest of ending racial segregation outweighed whatever religious rights Bob Jones University had.

But Bob Jones University v. United States was a historically extraordinary case and may not be helpful for sorting out issues of LGBT equal protection and religious schools’ free exercise. The case took place after years of court rulings and legislation had established clear public policy against racial segregation in education. At that time, most Christian schools had already renounced segregation as a matter of policy and theology. The Court decided against Bob Jones University because, it argued, a tax-exempt entity must “not be so at odds with the common community conscience as to undermine any public benefit that might otherwise be conferred.”

While the outcome of the decision was an appropriate extension of the government’s interest in ending racial segregation, some of the reasoning behind the ruling is troubling: As Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. argued at the time, charitable exemptions play an important role not just in promoting public policy, but also supporting contrary viewpoints. A healthy society should support diverse views and allow space for substantive ideological differences, knowing that the “community conscience” may change rapidly and threaten those who dissent.

To put this in context, recall that Barack Obama first publicly supported same-sex marriage as president four years ago. As of 2008, he unequivocally opposed it. In that short period, the American “community conscience” shifted from enthusiastic support for a Democratic president who opposed same-sex marriage to serious legislative efforts to punish schools in California that do not provide housing for same-sex married couples. Relying on public opinion to determine whether Title IX religious exemptions are just puts religious communities with deeply held, historic beliefs at the mercy of rapidly evolving social norms. Unlike the Bob Jones case, which concerned a fringe view among Christian colleges, a great many religious schools remain committed to traditional teachings on marriage and gender.

If students were prohibited from using their government aid at these religious schools, the consequences would be severe for these communities. But the policy would also represent a weakening of the U.S.’s commitment to support dissenting views. Religious schools offer public benefit with the education they provide, but also in their cultivation of thick beliefs that may differ from public orthodoxy.

If a bill like SB 1146 passes, it is likely that religious schools will challenge the constitutionality of the law; this issue might eventually reach the Supreme Court. But a better solution would be to work out a way for Christian schools and their surrounding communities to live with each other with respect and dignity.

Cutting off funds might mean only wealthy, non-minority students could afford religious schools.

First, schools must be very open about their values and codes of conduct. Students should understand the kind of religious community they are joining when they enroll so that they can make a prudent decision about what is best for them.

Second, state and federal governments should continue to provide aid to students who attend religious schools because, in most cases, they are receiving a quality education which will help them become better citizens and workers. This aid largely supports low-income students, and often minorities. Cutting off these funds might mean that only wealthy, non-minority students would be able to afford to attend religious schools, which, according to critics of SB 1146, could be the case if government aid were prohibited.

Third, religious schools should help students who enroll and later decide they can no longer attend in good conscience. These students should be able to transfer to another school with the administrative, emotional, and practical support of the religious school. In addition, religious schools must be vigilant about dealing with bullying and abuse and create an environment in which students who have suffered feel safe to report these incidents without fear of expulsion or retribution. Many religious schools are working toward these kinds of practices; the challenge for all of them is to go beyond policies and rhetoric to ensure the safety of all students.

This doesn’t mean religious schools will be a good fit for all students. But these steps might help balance the well being of LGBT students with some students’ desire to study in religious communities that share their values. When college students are supported through government grants and loans to attend a variety of schools, needy students have a better chance to receive a quality education in an environment they choose. This kind of policy helps the United States develop a kind of thick diversity—one that enables the country to flourish.