Washington D.C., May 20, 2021 / 10:17 am (CNA).
Attorneys representing a Missouri Christian college asked a federal court Wednesday to halt a Biden administration directive the school says would force it to violate its religious beliefs.
The College of the Ozarks, a Christian liberal arts college in Point Lookout, Missouri, sued the Biden administration in April over a rule change that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing.
In February, the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a memo interpreting federal prohibitions of sex discrimination in housing to also protect sexual orientation and gender identity.
The new rule is an interpretation of President Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 executive order; Biden had stated in his order, “It is the policy of my Administration to prevent and combat discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.”
In its lawsuit, the college claimed that the administration would require biological males identifying as transgender females to not be denied access to female dorms or bathrooms. Such a requirement under the Fair Housing Act would violate the school’s faith-based standards prohibiting males and females from living together in the same dormitories, the college claimed.
A hearing in the case, before the U.S. district court for the Western District of Missouri, was held on Wednesday.
“The government cannot and should not force schools to open girls’ dorms to males based on its politically motivated and inappropriate redefinition of ‘sex,’” said Julie Marie Blake, senior counsel with the group Alliance Defending Freedom which is representing the college, in a statement.
“Women shouldn’t be forced to share private spaces—including showers and dorm rooms—with males, and religious schools shouldn’t be punished simply because of their beliefs about marriage and biological sex,” Blake stated.
“Government overreach by the Biden administration continues to victimize women, girls, and people of faith by gutting their legal protections, and it must be stopped,” she said.
The College of the Ozarks was founded in 1906 by a Presbyterian minister; it claims that students help defray the costs of their tuition by working jobs that the college provides, while donor-funded scholarships cover the remaining costs.
However, the College of the Ozarks lawsuit is not the only gender-related lawsuit recently filed against the Biden administration.
The Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) recently asked to intervene in a lawsuit by a pro-LGBT group against the Department of Education; the lawsuit seeks to eliminate a religious exemption to Title IX. The CCCU, representing more than 180 Christian institutions, was looking to defend that exemption in court.
The Religious Exemption Accountability Project had filed the lawsuit Hunter v. Department of Education on behalf of 33 students from more than 20 colleges associated with evangelical Christianity or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; the students, who identify as LGBT, say they experienced discrimination at the religious schools on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The accountability project claims it “empowers queer, trans and non-binary students at more than 200 taxpayer-funded religious schools that actively discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.”
In the students’ lawsuit, they are seeking to remove the religious exemption to the Title IX prohibition of sex discrimination, so that the religious schools receiving federal funding would be subject to its requirements.
In March, Biden issued an executive order stating his administration’s policy to oppose “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity” in education. The schools shuld be subject to that order if their religious exemption to Title IX is removed, the lawsuit claims.
The president of the council, Shirley V. Hoogstra, told CNA that the CCCU filed a motion “to be an official participant in the case so we can defend Title IX’s religious protections.”
“As part of the filing, the CCCU also submitted a motion to dismiss the lawsuit based on the frivolous legal claims,” Hoogstra said. “Because the CCCU represents a large swath of religious higher education, we believe that adding our voice, our experience and our analysis to the defense side will help the court resolve the lawsuit in a way that is favorable to our members.”
Hoogstra said that if the court were to overturn the religious exemption to Title IX for the colleges, they could be forced to forego federal financial student aid. Such a situation “would take federal financial aid away from hundreds of thousands of students who choose to attend faith-based colleges and universities,” Hoogstra said.
“This would restrict student choice in an unprecedented way, preventing middle- and low-income students from being able to take their federal aid to these institutions,” Hoogstra said, noting that seven out of 10 students at CCCU schools receive federal funding.
She added that “the withdrawal of financial aid, including Pell grants and federal research grants, would have a disproportionate impact on low-income and first-generation college students, as well as students from racial and ethnic minority groups.”
She added, “Faith-based higher education has always been an essential element of the diversity of higher education in the United States—many of the first colleges and universities in the country were religious—and it is crucial that students continue to be given the opportunity to choose and access the college of their choice in a diverse educational landscape.”
Paul Southwick, a lawyer for the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, recently told Inside Higher Ed that the council’s motion to intervene is “premature,” arguing that the Department of Education “has not indicated whether they will defend the Title IX religious exemption or whether they will be neutral or align with the plaintiffs.”
Southwick also said the government “is not required to subsidize discrimination, whether the discrimination is on the basis of race or on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Asked about Southwick’s comments, Hoogstra said that CCCU “is intervening in this case because the plaintiffs want to end and take away our constitutional protections right now, and right now is when we need to respond. Later would be too late.”
“I also want to clarify that CCCU institutions do not in fact ‘discriminate’ based on sexual orientation or gender identity, as LGBTQ students are routinely admitted and enrolled at our schools,” she added.
She said that faith-based colleges and universities are exercising their First Amendment right “to maintain a campus community in which everyone is committed to living out a historic, biblical understanding of human sexuality, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
“Others might disagree with the underlying theology, but implementing this theology on a Christian college or university campus is not the same as ‘discriminating’ against LGBTQ students,” Hoogstra said.
“Believing differently is not discrimination. In America, individuals are granted rights to hold beliefs others find wrong but are actually protected under the Constitution. Differing views can and should live side by side, as that is the great promise in America.”