Progress, Setbacks for LGBTQ+ Rights at Christian Colleges

Many religious institutions have rolled back discriminatory policies against gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. But new research shows it's getting worse for transgender people.
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Updated on September 29, 2023
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  • Many religious schools still have discriminatory policies targeting same-sex relationships.
  • Some have added anti-transgender language in recent years.
  • Even more progressive Christian schools may limit student workers who identify as LGBTQ+.

People represented in the letters in LGBTQ+ don't experience equal treatment at the nation's religious colleges and universities.

Christian and other religious institutions have become more accepting of gay and lesbian students over the past decade, while simultaneously becoming more restrictive of transgender expression, according to new research shared with BestColleges.

"It's just mixed," Jonathan Coley, an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University researching LGBTQ+ activism at Christian colleges, told BestColleges. "There has been a bit of progress with lesbian, gay, and bisexual students. But, things seem to be getting worse for trans students."

A string of policy announcements and subsequent protests made headlines in recent weeks and shine a light on the state of LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff on the campuses of Christian colleges.

A protest at Seattle Pacific University over the school's choice to renew a policy that effectively bans hiring LGBTQ+ faculty and staff is ongoing. Meanwhile, a Lee University policy leaked showing the school will place tight restrictions on gender expression.

Coley said these respective policies align with larger trends he has seen and studied in recent years.

New Restrictions on Trans Student Life

Coley first began building a database of LGBTQ+ policies at Christian schools in 2013. At that time, very few had any policies regarding gender identity, he said.

"Trans issues were just not on [religious schools'] radars," he said.

That has since changed dramatically. As protections for and discrimination against transgender people in all aspects of U.S. life have become a political issue, religious universities have begun to weigh in.

Quotation mark

Coley's most recent research found that 50% of Christian colleges and universities now have "gender identity" or "gender expression" in their nondiscrimination policies, up from 10% in 2013. The data has yet to be published but was provided to BestColleges for this article.

That percentage was higher than he would have anticipated, he said. He attributes it to the fact that in June 2021, the Department of Education (ED) announced that it would interpret Title IX rules as prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity.

President Barack Obama's Education Department also interpreted Title IX to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, protecting individuals who identify as LGBTQ+. The Trump administration rolled back these guidelines in 2017.

Additionally, Coley's new research found the percentage of universities with discriminatory policies against trans students has also grown since 2013. While virtually none had any such policies nine years ago, 21% now have clear anti-transgender policies in their student handbook, he said.

"Since these anti-transgender handbook policies are a fairly recent development, I assume that, in practice, an even higher percentage of schools discriminate against transgender students," Coley said.

Kaitlin Gabriele-Black, an assistant professor at Salve Regina University researching the intersection of LGBTQ+ issues and evangelical Christianity, shared a similar observation. Most universities were preoccupied with same-sex relationships 10-15 years ago. But now that same-sex marriage is legal, they've turned their attention to transgender students.

Anti-trans policies enacted at the state levels across the country have only emboldened many of these universities.

"I think we're going to see schools doubling down on their policies because [there are] no consequences for it," Gabriele-Black told BestColleges. "They're still receiving federal funding. Until their bottom line is hurt, we're not going to see complete change. And even that might not be enough."

Title IX bars discrimination based on sex and sexual orientation. However, ED has yet to formally update the policy to ban discrimination based on gender identity, and religious schools are allowed to enforce some discriminatory policies through religious exemption waivers.

Some Wins for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Students

The past decade has shown progress for students with same-sex partners at religious institutions.

It was once commonplace for these schools to have prohibitive language in their codes of conduct — which all students must sign upon enrolling — that ban gay and lesbian relationships. However, many of the student handbooks at religious schools now have language protecting these students.

"More and more of these Christian schools are putting policies in place that have language protecting against discrimination against these groups," Gabriele-Black said.

Coley's research backs that up. His 2013 analysis found that 55% of evangelical schools had nondiscrimination language inclusive of sexual orientation. His 2022 analysis found that percentage had risen to 62%.

LGBTQ+ student groups are also on the rise at religious institutions — but it's not a sharp rise.

Coley found that in 2013, 45% of the Christian colleges and universities he examined had officially recognized LGBTQ+ student groups. He published an updated study in 2020 that found that figure had only risen to 47% in seven years.

Gabriele-Black said one reason for this embrace of student groups is these groups emphasize addressing mental health conditions that disproportionately impact LGBTQ+ students. College leaders increasingly understand the need to address mental health conditions on college campuses, and, therefore, are willing to support these student groups financially.

"Some schools have realized that even if they aren't in support of that lifestyle, they have to help students and their mental health," she said.

Coley added that while gains have been made at some schools, others have gone the other direction and now have harsher discriminatory policies than before.

It was once customary for schools to include quick references to "homosexual acts" in their list of prohibited actions. Now, the schools that have discriminatory language dedicate one or two pages in the student handbook to the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues.

"Many of these schools now say that students can be kicked out for even supporting same-sex marriage or same-sex relationships," he said, "even if they themselves are not LGBTQ."

Progress Limited to Students

Universities have taken progressive steps to embrace lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, but many schools have not taken those same steps regarding faculty and staff, Coley said.

The ongoing protests at Seattle Pacific University stem from university leaders reaffirming a lifestyle expectations guide that disallows its faculty and staff from engaging in same-sex relations.

Coley said it's not uncommon for religious institutions to have double standards for students and workers.

Even more progressive and accepting schools enforce policies strictly for workers. Calvin University, which recently elected an openly gay student body president, made headlines in March when an employee left the university following a meeting with the provost concerning her marriage to another woman.

Coley said that other schools, such as Abilene Christian University, allow students to be openly gay, but not faculty and staff.

That often creates hurdles for student workers. He said some schools won't allow gay, lesbian, and bisexual students to hold university jobs that oversee other students, instead limiting them to lower, non-managerial roles.

Title IX religious exemption waivers allow this form of discrimination to exist, Coley said. The Religious Exemption Accountability Project filed a lawsuit in early 2021 to challenge this practice. While there was a hearing that year, the judge has not issued a decision, he said. The group argues that if these institutions want to discriminate, they shouldn't also be allowed to take in federal funds.

"It's a longshot lawsuit," Coley added.

The Department of Justice said last June that it would support the right of religious institutions to exercise religious exemptions.