- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2022

A group supporting gay and transgender students announced Wednesday that federal civil rights officials have agreed to investigate allegations of discrimination at three Christian universities, including Virginia’s Liberty University.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights confirmed each probe in separate letters to the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, or REAP, an LGBTQ advocacy group that has targeted what it calls discriminatory practices in religious schools nationwide.

The group filed a lawsuit last year challenging the exemptions from Title IX, the federal anti-discrimination law, that allow religious institutions to follow faith-based standards on matters of sexuality and gender.

Besides Liberty University in Lynchburg, the Department of Education letters — dated May 3 and 4 and signed by attorneys with the department’s Office for Civil Rights — confirm newly opened probes of two California schools: Azusa Pacific University in Azusa and La Sierra University in Riverside.

REAP accuses the three private Christian schools of, among other things, a refusal to “fully recognize” LGBTQ+ student groups on campus. 

The group also calls for an investigation of Liberty’s policies on recommending gay and transgender conversion therapy, an inquiry into Azusa Pacific’s student handbook that defines marriage as between a man and a woman and a probe of the Seventh-day Adventist-based teachings against homosexuality at La Sierra.

An Education Department spokesperson on Friday morning confirmed the three investigations. A Liberty University spokesperson did not respond to an inquiry from The Washington Times.

“The university is aware, and that we’re responding as requested,” said Rachel White, executive director of strategic communication for Azusa Pacific University. “I can also tell you that the university strives to create a living and learning environment where all students feel safe and respected,” she added.

A La Sierra spokesperson said the school “does not comment on pending investigations.”

REAP’s announcement quoted former Liberty University student Luke Wilson as saying he was “beyond delighted” that the agency’s civil rights office opened an investigation.

“As a survivor of Liberty’s one-on-one conversion therapy program and as one who went to one of the group conversion therapy meetings on campus, I have since worked to raise awareness about this heinous practice that has ravaged the lives of countless queer Liberty students,” Mr. Wilson said.

The three new investigations by the Office of Civil Rights follow on the heels of three similar probes requested by REAP of Colorado Christian University, Pennsylvania’s Clarks Summit University and Lincoln Christian University in Illinois that were confirmed by federal attorneys earlier this year. 

REAP and other LGBTQ groups have pressured the Biden administration to deliver on campaign promises to better protect marginalized groups, and the president in March again called for the Senate to pass the House-backed Equality Act — proposed legislation that would prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and education on the basis of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Democratic-crafted measure has been blocked by Republicans who say the bill would force religious workers, employers and institutions to choose between following the law or following their faith.

A group of Republicans, led by Utah’s Rep. Chris Stewart, have offered an alternative bill, the Fairness for All Act, that aims at protecting the existing religious institutions’ exemptions to Title IX, the 1972 federal civil rights law banning sex-based discrimination in any school that receives federal funding.

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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