In the wake of Hobby Lobby, religious exemptions may be gaining strength.
Last week, the Department of Education closed a discrimination complaint filed by an Oregon transgender student, who was denied on-campus housing with his male friends at a Christian college. With what the student’s attorney described as “lightning speed,” the DOE granted George Fox University a religious exemption from Title IX, the 1972 civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities. Though the school is private, it accepts millions of dollars every year from the government via student loan programs.
Twenty-year-old Jayce, who goes only by his first name to protect himself against harassment, filed a Title IX complaint against the university in April. School officials told Jayce he had to live in an on-campus single apartment, instead of with his male friends because he was born a biological female. Jayce has completed the transition process, with his birth certificate, driver’s license, and Social Security card all reflecting that he is male.
“I feel like I have the right to live with other males,” Jayce told Portland’s KGW.com. “As a person who is transgender, there is a lot of anxiety, depression that comes along with that and I don’t feel like that would be right for me to live by myself due to those things.”
Unbeknownst to Jayce, George Fox University had applied for a religious exemption – the same kind recently affirmed in the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision – days before he submitted his Title IX complaint. Even more shocking, the DOE granted the religious exemption almost immediately thereafter.
“In the past, it took years for exemptions to go through,” said Paul Southwick, Jayce’s attorney, to msnbc. “I have no idea why [the DOE] did it so quickly here. But they did do it more quickly than historically, with complete deference to the university.”
The DOE’s handling of Jayce’s case was especially surprising, given that in April, the department released guidance that specifically extended Title IX’s protections to transgender students, and invited complaints for investigation. But when Jayce’s complaint came in, the DOE said it no longer had jurisdiction. George Fox had beaten Jayce to the punch.
“The university is operating under the doctrine of ‘separate but equal,’ and the religious exemption they received now gives the government’s stamp of approval to what they are doing,” said Jayce. “My own tax dollars will fund the university’s discrimination against me.”
Rather than accept the school’s offer to live in a single apartment, Jayce decided to move off campus with his friends. He’s also appealing the DOE’s decision, and has asked the Department of Justice to consider a formal investigation under the Fair Housing Act.
In its request for the exemption, George Fox said it “cannot in good conscience support or encourage an individual to live in conflict with biblical principles.” Yet members of the Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends, a Quaker denomination affiliated with the school, say they see no theological basis for discriminating against transgender people.
“As a person of faith and a Quaker myself, I see nothing in scripture or Friends theology that justifies or even supports the university’s position,” Darleen Ortega, a George Fox alum and member of the Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends, told PQ Monthly. “What I find in scripture, instead, are calls for compassion and kindness to everyone. And I don’t understand how one can deal ethically with someone in Jayce’s situation without working to understand his circumstances and come alongside him.”
Southwick said he’ll ask the DOE to go back and check if there’s any theological reason to grant George Fox a religious exemption from Title IX. As for the connection to Hobby Lobby – June’s Supreme Court ruling that granted closely held companies an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate – Southwick sees the decision as an indirect influence on Jayce’s case.
“It was not directly influenced because the religious exemption was granted a month or so ago, they just didn’t tell any of us,” said Southwick. However, the DOE “formally closed Jayce’s complaint after the Hobby Lobby decision, so perhaps that was somewhat influenced.”
Southwick sees what happened to Jayce as “a symptom of the times in which LGBT rights are advancing.”
“Hobby Lobby is the beginning,” he said. “Religious exemptions are going to be front and center of the LGBT rights debate.”