How the Religious Exemption Accountability Project Advocates for LGBTQ+ Students
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- More than 200 religious colleges and universities in the U.S. have been granted religious exemptions to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people.
- The Religious Exemption Accountability Project is suing the Department of Education for granting these exemptions.
- Students at any institution can get involved and support LGBTQ+ students at religious colleges and universities.
Today, more than 200 religious educational institutions in the U.S. actively exclude and discriminate against queer and trans people. The Religious Exemption Accountability Project's (REAP) work began with a class-action lawsuit in April, 2020, with Elizabeth Hunter, et al. v. U.S. Department of Education (ED), et al.
The case represents an additional 32 LGBTQ+ students from religious institutions all over the country. The lawsuit seeks to end ED's granting of religious exemptions to educational institutions that continue to receive federal funding while discriminating against LGBTQ+ individuals.
What Is a Religious Exemption?
Religious exemptions stem from two sources. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which protects people from discrimination based on religion, among other things, and Section 202 in Executive Order 11246 of the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.
A religious exemption allows religious organizations to protect against being forced to violate their beliefs. Religious Exemptions have been provided to 200+ educational institutions, allowing them to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
The ED's granting of religious exemptions to colleges and universities flies in the face of Title IX, a policy ostensibly upheld by the same ED, which guarantees that LGBTQ+ students are provided the same basic protections at federally funded institutions as cisgender and heterosexual students. These religious exemptions have actively caused harm to LGBTQ+ students by denying them admission, disregarding sexual assault claims, forced conversion therapy, and expulsion.
What and Who Is the Religious Exemption Accountability Project?
REAP resists religious exemptions through litigation, storytelling, research, and policy work. Their goal is that "LGBTQ+ students on all campuses are treated equally, with safety and respect." Representing 33 LGBTQ+ students, REAP contends that these institutions, even those affiliated with a particular faith, are not houses of worship themselves and are thus bound to Title IX and all other non-discrimination laws, similar to all federally funded colleges and universities.
Since it started in 2021, REAP has been incredibly active. The organization has held a preliminary injunction hearing with seven witnesses asking the courts for provisional measures for the students, filed about 40 Title IX complaints with ED's Office of Civil Rights (OCR), and prompted three Title IX investigations by OCR. This is in addition to the ongoing support provided to individual students and groups at different religious colleges and universities, advocating for justice and equity.
Joseph Baxter, an attorney and legal fellow at REAP, confirms that REAP supports students "through every possible way that we can tell their stories and get their voices out there. We challenge this idea that taxpayer funding can be used at schools that refuse to treat LGBTQ+ students equally … if the government is going to partner with educational institutions to provide education to youth, it has to provide access equally to everybody, regardless of your sexual orientation or gender identity."
Past and Current REAP Campaigns
REAP's work revolves around the Elizabeth Hunter, et al. v. U.S. Department of Education class-action lawsuit. The organization has also engaged in awareness-raising and action-oriented campaigns at various institutions to ensure more people stand against discrimination at religious colleges and universities.
At Walsh University in Ohio, students have been attempting to get an LGBTQ+ student organization officially recognized by the university for the last two years. They have been met with resistance, willful ignorance, and silence from the institution's administration. This is despite the words of Walsh University President Dr. Tim Collins, who said, "We strive to create an environment where people believe they are valued and appreciated because they are."
At Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma, REAP has partnered with Faithful America, a Christian social justice organization. This campaign targets ORU's policy of making students sign a pledge, as a part of the university's honor code, banning "homosexual activity." An anonymous alum of ORU noted that "the policies essentially banned my existence, putting me in a constant state of fear and hypervigilance. I was taught to hate the core of who I am, and did just that." Thus, in addition to isolating and discriminating against LGBTQ+ students, the pledge encourages internalized homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.
On March 16, REAP joined 60 LGBTQ+ students, allies, and clergy at Fresno Pacific University, demanding an accreditation investigation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Similar to Walsh University, FPU rejected LGBTQ+ students' attempt to organize a club called Birds for Pride in 2021.
How Students Can Get Involved
There are several ways for students at any institution to get involved. One way to do so is by signing up on their listserv to learn about future petitions and campaigns to support. Cisgender and heterosexual students at religious institutions can support their LGBTQ+ peers by joining their efforts to advocate for affirming spaces and policies on their campuses.
All students at any institution can host and attend awareness-raising and educational programs on their campuses that promote the religious freedom of LGBTQ+ students seeking to live in their truth.
Collaborative and dialogic programs between LGBTQ+ and faith-based student organizations and departments would be particularly powerful, dispelling myths about what it means to be a person of faith. Taking their cue from celebrities like Dominique Jackson, Omar Sharif Jr., Alan Cumming, and Margaret Cho, students can voice their support publicly through a PSA video raising funds for REAP.
The Religious Exemption Accountability Project officially represents 33 LGBTQ+ students from various religious colleges and universities, seeking to undo harmful practices and policies on their campuses.
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However, their work looms larger, promoting the betterment of more than the lives of those 33 individuals. Through a civil rights lawsuit, the organization is effectively representing the rights of hundreds of thousands of students to practice their faith in a manner that does not deny their own or their peers' existence and rights to dignity, safety, and an affirming education.
"The immense pressure this puts on students every day is horrific. At least to incredibly increased rates of suicide, self-harm and depression. It's very harmful" says Baxter. "Universities have an obligation to their students. They should be taking care of their students. They should want more accountability and more oversight. Because that protects their students. And their job is to protect the well-being of their students. And they're failing their LGBTQ+ students incredibly."
With Advice From:
Joe Baxter (he/him) is an attorney and legal fellow with the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, where he advocates for LGBTQ+ students attending the more than 200 taxpayer-funded institutions across the U.S. that explicitly discriminate against LGBTQ+ youth.
Baxter spent his undergraduate years at a religiously owned and operated university, Brigham Young University - Idaho, where he witnessed first-hand the discrimination that LGBTQ+ students face. Baxter began working to end religiously motivated discrimination by promoting cultural change and challenging our legal system's status quo.
During law school, Baxter focused a large portion of his legal studies on the current imbalance between LGBTQ+ human rights and religious liberties. He wrote his Capstone on the issue of LGBTQ+ discrimination at religious universities that receive federal funds.
Baxter graduated with honors from Lewis & Clark Law School in 2021, where he was a lead article editor for the Lewis and Clark Law Review and was elected to represent his class in the Student Bar Association.