In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, two recent decisions involving Christian universities and transgender students have ensured that religious freedom continues to be a prominent national issue.
The U.S. Education Department recently granted George Fox University a religious exemption from parts of Title IX—which prohibits educational institutions that receive federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex. The decision came after a student who was reportedly “undergoing ‘an extensive process’ of transition from ‘female to male’” complained that the University was violating Title IX by denying a request to live in an all-male dorm.
Just last year, the U.S. Education and Justice Departments decided that schools and colleges could not prohibit transgender students from buildings meant for one gender. And according to Inside Higher Ed, although some had hoped this decision would bode well for students with similar claims, the exemption for George Fox now has them “worried about the ability of religious colleges to discriminate against transgender (and possibly other) students.”
The George Fox student’s lawyer, Paul Southwick, reportedly noted that he believed the Department of Education’s exemption for the University would likely create a precedent that would lead to other religious institutions acting similarly.
In another situation, a judge issued a decision allowing California Baptist University to expel a transgender student, but the decision also held that the University could not forbid the student “from public spaces on campus or from its online educational programs,” according to Inside Higher Ed.
The student, who reportedly “identifies as a woman and applied to the university as a woman,” was admitted to California Baptist in 2011.
According to Insider Higher Ed.:
But the university learned that she had appeared on a reality television program to discuss her transgender identity. Then, based on the idea that she was a "fraud," the university expelled her and banned her from the campus and all campus activities. Upon internal appeal, the university said she could attend public events on the campus, but otherwise did not change the finding.
Her lawsuit against California Baptist is based on the Unruh Civil Rights Act, which bars various forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on gender identity.
The California superior court judge's ruling focused on the extent to which the law applied, given that California courts had previously ruled that it did not apply to organizations whose primary mission is "the inculcation of a specific set of moral values." The judge ruled that the residential academic program fit that model and thus was exempt. He noted that the president and all trustees must be members of Southern Baptist churches, that all faculty must be Christian, and that students are expected to attend chapel and must abide by "a strict moral code." For these reasons, the judge found that the university's undergraduate, on-campus program was exempt from the law.
The Cardinal Newman Society reported last week that several religious and academic leaders, some with ties to Catholic colleges, wrote to President Barack Obama urging him to include a religious exemption in a looming executive order that would ban any discrimination based on sexual orientation among federal contractors.
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