- The Washington Times - Friday, January 13, 2023

Students at colleges and universities operating on religious principles concerning marriage, sexual identity and gender won’t be blocked from receiving federal aid, the U.S. District Court in Oregon ruled this week.

The court dismissed a 2021 suit filed by 40 LGBTQ+ students, alumni and applicants to religious schools against the Department of Education over exemptions granted to religious schools from Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972’s nondiscrimination requirements. The court noted “one narrow exception” to the rules, one Congress created to protect schools “controlled by a religious organization” whose beliefs are “inconsistent” with those rules.

The suit asserted that granting religious schools Title IX exemptions leaves gays “unprotected from the harms of conversion therapy, expulsion, denial of housing and health care, sexual and physical abuse, and harassment, as well as the less visible, but no less damaging, consequences of institutionalized shame, fear, anxiety and loneliness.”

Federal Judge Ann L. Aiken, a Clinton appointee, wrote in an opinion that the plaintiffs, who were supported by the nonprofit Religious Exemption Accountability Project, or REAP, did not prove their case and were not likely to win at trial. Along with dismissing the case, Judge Aiken denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction against the Education Department‘s granting of religious exemptions.

“Exempting religiously controlled educational institutions from Title IX … is substantially related to the government’s objective of accommodating religious exercise,” the opinion stated.

The plaintiffs said they are considering an appeal.

“Because of today’s decision, tens of thousands of LGBTQIA+ students across the country will continue to be discriminated against at universities receiving taxpayer money,” the Religious Exemption Accountability Project said in a statement.

“I am hurt that I put my faith and trust in the federal government to hear our stories, to listen to and feel the pain we feel as queer students. But even this was not enough for us to gain the recognition that our rights matter just as much as our Christian counterparts,” plaintiff Veronica Bonifacio Penales, who attends Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and identifies as queer, said in the REAP statement.

The case attracted attention in summer 2021 when the Department of Justice, which represented the Education Department in court, first said it would “vigorously defend” the exemption and then backtracked the following day.

In October of that year, the federal court allowed three Christian postsecondary schools represented by lawyers at the Alliance Defending Freedom — Corban University, William Jessup University and Phoenix Seminary — to intervene in the lawsuit.

“It’s a big victory,” Ryan Tucker, ADF senior counsel, said in a telephone interview.

“This lawsuit would have slammed the door shut [for] most students who were looking to pursue higher education at religious colleges and universities,” had the court ordered the Education Department to revoke the religious exemptions and stop issuing new ones.

The plaintiffs, Mr. Tucker said, “were seeking to punish religious schools and their students merely for holding [to] and living out so widely accepted religious teachings, and they sought to declare legal protections for religion as unconstitutional in general, and the court summarily rejected all those claims.”

He said: “America is big enough for religious schools and secular schools, both public and private, to coexist. And denying students access to the college of their choice by stripping away federal funding from students who choose religious schools is discriminatory and wrong.”

The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment.

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

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