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Some colleges exclude LGBTQ students using religion, but students are fighting back

LGBTQ activists and allies protesting at Biola University Tuesday.
LGBTQ activists and allies protesting at Biola University Tuesday.
Joseph Olvera

As a high school student, Coley Baker was set on going to Biola University, a private evangelical school about an hour from where he grew up in Riverside, California.

"It was actually the only university I applied to," Baker told Vox this week. "I just really wanted to go to a religious-affiliated university, and Biola seemed like it had the kind of atmosphere I was looking for."

After transferring to Biola from community college during his sophomore year, he realized the next three years would be a challenge. Baker, a 23-year-old trans man, said the university did not have an official policy against transgender people at the time.

Still, as a way to develop "Christ-like maturity" among its students, sexual activity "contrary to Biola's community standards" would result in disciplinary action, according to the student handbook. Openly LGBTQ students were also encouraged to participate in spiritual counseling, Baker said.

"I knew that coming out was not really going to be an option for me if I wanted to remain at Biola," Baker said. "It was hard to form connections with some peers and professors knowing that as soon as I came out, those ties would be severed very suddenly."

Now the exclusion Baker felt in college may become official. In fact, Biola is one of 60 private religious colleges and universities across the country to seek an exemption from Title IX, the 1972 law prohibiting federally funded schools from gender-based discrimination.

When granted, these waivers allow schools to expel or deny admission to LGBTQ students, and to restrict their access to certain facilities, citing religious freedom.

Many students, though, are taking a stand.

On Tuesday, Baker joined other LGBTQ students and allies who rallied at both Biola and Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma, to protest Title IX waiver requests filed by each school. Oklahoma Baptist's request was granted last year, and Biola's is still pending.

Through a partnership with the Christian-driven advocacy group Soulforce, these students are working to keep a spotlight on this growing trend among Christian schools.

Title IX waiver requests are on the rise

These protests follow plans announced by the Department of Education last month to publish a list of religious schools exempt from federal nondiscrimination policies for gender identity and sexual orientation.

Requests for Title IX exemption were once fairly rare, and only received national attention in 2014 after George Fox University in Oregon received a waiver, allowing the school to deny a transgender male student access to campus housing for male students. According to the university, the student chose to live off-campus.

That same year a judge ruled in favor of California Baptist University, allowing the school to expel a transgender student for fraud after she identified as female on her admissions application.

Waiver requests focused on gender identity and sexual orientation have increased of late, most likely as a result of expanded LGBTQ rights laws and visibility.

Since 2013, the Department of Education has granted exemptions to 56 schools, according to a report by the Human Rights Campaign. In the past year, more than 40 religious colleges and universities across the country have filed requests.

During this time, Soulforce has worked with student activists to advocate for the LGBTQ community on Christian campuses. Through the "Give Back IX" campaign, Soulforce and its partners ask schools to remove these exemptions, Jordyn Sun, the national campus organizer for Soulforce, told Vox.

More fundamentally, she added, the movement is about holding schools accountable to their values of diversity, inclusion, and safety for all students.

"A majority of queer students are at Christian schools because they want to be there. They’re invested in these schools," Sun said. "[The idea] that someone has to choose between their faith and all of the identities that God has given them is the biggest myth in my mind."

Religious schools can use faith as a loophole

Controversy surrounding Title IX is not new. It's commonly associated with gender inclusion in sports, but Title IX covers many areas including pregnancy, access to school facilities, and sexual violence on campus.

In 2011, Title IX discussions shifted to sexual violence on campus after a group of students at universities across the country filed complaints with the Department of Education.

As Title IX and LGBTQ rights gain larger audiences, more colleges and universities are seeking legal exemptions on the basis of religion.

Biola does not currently have conflicts with any students, applicants, or employees, Jerry Mackey, general counsel to the university, told Vox. But the school administration feels it has the right to "live out the religious mission" and find solutions for issues that conflict with that mission, he said.

As demonstrated by the Supreme Court’s 2014 Hobby Lobby decision, the government can allow institutions controlled by a religious organization to be exempt from a law that conflicts with its religious beliefs.

But young LGBTQ activists like Coley Baker disagree with this idea. He believes the waivers promote a culture of intolerance where religious faith and LGBTQ identity are mutually exclusive. That needs to change, he said.

"I don’t think discrimination against anyone is scriptural," he said. "These schools are operating under the assumption that the waiver will keep transgender people away, but what they don’t realize is transgender students are already there."

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated George Fox University denied a male transgender student campus housing. The school denied the student housing in a facility for male students.