The US Department for Education has granted a religious exemption to Baylor University which excludes them from sexual harassment claims involving LGBTQ+ students.
Baylor University, a private Baptist Christian research university in Waco, Texas, sent a letter to the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights on 1 May, requesting reassurance “that the belief in or practice of its religious tenets by the University or its students” would not constitute “unwelcome conduct” under the department’s definition of “sexual harassment” under Title IX.
This request reportedly came after four complaints of harassment were made against the school, including one allegation that the school failed to respond to students who were harassed for their gender or sexual identity.
The US Department for Education granted Baylor University’s request on 25 July, meaning that staff and students could not be accused of sexual harassment for their behaviour towards LGBTQ+ people, which would be banned under Title IX where the behaviour is justified according to their religious beliefs and practices.
Baylor’s exemption also means that the university will not lose any federal funding if it neglects to respond to reports of sexual harassment on campus.
According to the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, this is the first time a university has requested a religious Title IX exemption to permit sexual harassment and the first time the Department for Education has granted such a request.
Last year, the Biden administration proposed amendments to Title IX – a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any government-funded school or education programme.
The amendments included an expanded definition of sexual harassment to include harassment based on sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy and any situation that creates a “hostile environment”. Under Title IX, institutions that fail to respond to reports of on-campus “sex-based harassment, which encompasses sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence” will be stripped of any government funding.
However, religious institutions – including schools, colleges and universities – can still apply for exemption from Title IX by arguing that the provisions of the law clash with their beliefs.
A spokesperson from Baylor told PinkNews that expanding the definition of sexual harassment to include LGBTQ+ identities “could infringe on Baylor’s rights under the US Constitution”.
‘An unfortunate mischaracterisation’
In her letter requesting exemption, university president Dr Linda Livingstone wrote that Baylor does “regulate conduct that is inconsistent with the religious values and beliefs that are integral to its Christian faith”.
Livingstone argued that four complaints, made against the university and filed with the Office for Civil Rights, “must be dismissed because the allegations directly implicate Baylor’s religious exemption” from Title IX.
The four complaints allege the school violated Title IX’s ‘Statement on Human Sexuality and Sexual Conduct Policy’. The policy stipulates: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
One complaint alleges that the school failed to respond to students who were “subjected to harassment based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity”, The Messenger reported.
The Baylor University spokesperson told PinkNews: “It is unfortunate that Baylor University’s assertion of its existing religious exemption with the US Department of Education is being mischaracterised as a broad-based exception to sexual harassment policy within Title IX Regulations.
“Instead, Baylor is responding to current considerations by the US Department of Education to move to an expanded definition of sexual harassment, which could infringe on Baylor’s rights under the US Constitution, as well as Title IX, to conduct its affairs in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs.
“Baylor has taken and will continue to take meaningful steps to ensure members of the LGBTQ community are loved, cared for and protected as a part of the Baylor Family.
“Further, the University remains committed to promoting and maintaining an educational environment in which students can learn and grow in accordance with our Christian mission and our call to love our neighbours as ourselves.”
Responding to Baylor’s request for exemption, Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote: “Title IX does not apply to an educational institution controlled by a religious organisation to the extent that the application would be inconsistent with the controlling organisation’s religious tenets.”
The religious beliefs in the case of Baylor University are the “doctrine of marriage and the created distinction between men and women”.
‘Religious exemptions are used to abuse queer and trans students’
The Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), a non-profit created for LGBTQIA+ students and allies at religious colleges and universities, say that “religious exemptions are used to abuse queer and trans students.”
“Evidently, controlling people’s ability to live into their sexuality, gender identity and/or gender expression does not qualify as discrimination in the eyes of Baylor University. And neither does sexual harassment,” REAP wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
They added: “The outrage is not only that Baylor University would go so far as to request a religious exemption to sexual harassment, but also that the Department of Education would grant their request.
“The US government continues to permit taxpayer-funded religious colleges and universities to harm and abuse LGBTQIA+ students without accountability.”
REAP is currently challenging the Department of Education for granting religious exemptions in a landmark lawsuit.
This is not the first time that the Biden administration has shown support for anti-LGBTQ+ religious colleges and universities.
In 2021, it filed a legal motion claiming it shares the “same” objective as anti-LGBT+ religious schools, and the justice department said it can “vigorously” defend the religious discrimination at these colleges and universities.
PinkNews has approached the US Department for Education for comment.