Creating and sustaining a religious community is essential to the educational mission of Christian colleges and universities. They typically rely on codes of conduct that govern the behavior of students and faculty in line with their religious teachings. At many Christian schools, these codes include prohibitions against some kinds of sexual conduct and expression, including same-sex romantic relationships.
Certain private religious institutions are legally allowed to maintain these policies, which might mean they refuse to hire faculty in same-sex relationships or deny housing for married same-sex students. Many of these schools accept tuition in the form of federal and state grants and loans. That’s led critics, including the Human Rights Campaign, Campus Pride, and some LGBT students, to see these exemptions as discrimination hidden behind religion—and even worse, government-subsidized discrimination.
Students whose expression of sexual or gender identity conflicts with their campus’s conduct code face a difficult and often painful situation. They may reconsider their place at the university, their faith, their relationships, and their future. Fears of expulsion and shame may prevent these students from talking openly to school officials, which leaves them vulnerable to abuse and lacking adequate community support. No response to these scenarios can erase all the conflicts and heartbreak between students, families, and academic communities, but through a model of communication, mutual respect, and dignity, schools can create a healthier environment for everyone.
Both conservatives and liberals tend to approach the issue in absolute and uncompromising terms, but there are ways to resolve this conflict that will allow for both religious freedom and protections for LGBT students while minimizing further litigation. By increasing transparency about Title IX exemptions and codes of conduct, easing the transfer process for students who cannot abide by the codes of conduct, and taking a strict stance on bullying and abuse, religious schools can retain their distinctive mission while protecting students.
Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, schools are prohibited from discriminating based on sex. In recent years, the Department of Education has interpreted this prohibition to include gender identity. However, the law allows exemptions to this standard, and others listed under Title IX, for religious schools that apply. These exemptions are a way of balancing two increasingly competing American values: equal protection under the law and the free exercise of religion.
The exemptions allow religious schools to cultivate communities consistent with some of their core beliefs. The Christian understanding of marriage is not a fringe view taken by a few churches in the United States. In the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, marriage between men and women is a sacrament. For conservative evangelicals, it is instituted in the sacred scriptures by Christ himself and has been taught by the church for thousands of years.
Most students voluntarily select these colleges because they want to be educated in a community that shares their values. Some go to prepare for ministry, but most don’t. Instead, they tend to be motivated by the centrality of their faith to their identity. The opportunity to study with other believers, to live and practice their faith together, is a rich, formative experience that can expand students’ understanding of their beliefs. Most of these schools also challenge students’ religious beliefs, helping them move toward a more thoughtful, civil, and robust faith—the kind of faith that prepares them for participation in a diverse world. In a society that is losing so many of the mediating institutions that are essential for a flourishing culture, religious higher education continues to play a vital role, as David Brooks has recently argued.
Title IX doesn’t just allow exemptions for conservative Christians. Muslims, Jewish, and Mormon institutions are equally eligible to apply, as are any other religious institutions. At their best, these religious schools teach students about the diversity of belief in America while supporting students in their study of religion. That’s preparation for living out pluralism later in life: These are communities of robust faith practicing their beliefs, which can be good training for living at peace with neighbors who do not share those beliefs and may even find them offensive.
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