‘Right to Discriminate’: Religious exemptions put students at risk

In May 2016 President Obama sent out a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter to educational institutions giving clarification of how Title IX should be applied to students of different sexualities and gender identities.

Title IX’s main purpose is to protect students, regardless of gender from discrimination, harassment, sexual assault, or stalking. According to the Departments of Justice and Education, schools must adhere to Title IX standards in order to receive federal funding.

Several schools have requested exemption from the new Title IX requirements on religious grounds, including Southern Nazarene University (SNU) and Northwest Nazarene University (NNU).

Olivet has declined invitation to join the current class action lawsuit and exemption attempts being made by almost 100 other religious colleges and universities.

“Olivet has strong standards that anyone (regardless of sexual orientation) is protected from harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking,” David Pickering, Olivet’s Executive VP for Administration and Human Resources, said. “There are certain sexual behaviors that ONU does not condone, such as sexual acts outside of marriage for any student, regardless of sexual orientation.”

“It’s a question of whether or not the school actually wants to protect its students,” openly gay Olivet student Angelo Davis said. Davis also said he remains hopeful that places like Olivet are taking a stand and valuing students even if they identify differently than what has been traditionally accepted.

Many schools requesting exemption and others, like Olivet who are not requesting exemption, all belong to the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU). The CCCU’s formal statement at the President’s conference in Washington, DC this past Jan. was that they are looking for laxer religious exemption standards, the taking down of a website listing schools that have requested exemption, and fewer standards for investigating sexual assaults specifically applying to members of the LGBT community.

The CCCU claimed the Department of Education’s site was being used for the purpose of “shaming” schools requesting exemption. The site has since been taken down; however, all requests for exemption are still filed electronically for public record.

According to Title IX, a religious organization may request to be exempt from a standard that goes against a religious tenet they hold to be true if one or more of the following conditions is true: a school is specifically educating students to become ministers or enter a religious vocation, it requires faculty, students or employees to espouse a personal belief in the religion, or if the founding documents explicitly claim that the institution is controlled by a religious organization.

It was stated, on a conference handout, that, “In the last few years, regulators have reinterpreted the term ‘sex’ to cover a wider range of sexual harassment and related issues and have mandated a complex set of rules and procedures for all campuses regardless of size, mission, and record. No campus is perfect, but CCCU schools are exemplary on these issues – The CCCU seeks to ‘repeal and replace’ current regulations, start a new rulemaking process, and get legislation that sets in law rules that are more flexible.”

Many students at these religious institutions do not agree with the idea that their schools are exemplary in handling cases of sexual assault or discrimination.

In 2015 there were three reported instances of forcible sexual offenses, and three reported cases of stalking on campus, according Olivet’s Federal Discloser of Crime Statistics. The federal guidelines Olivet follows for investigating and reporting these incidences, such as the ones put forward in Title IX, are intended to increase the safety of students and provide an atmosphere free of sexual violence for education.

A former student of Oklahoma Baptist, Tristan Campbell wrote an article for the Religion News Service saying that not complying to these standards allows students to “be fired from campus jobs, suspended or expelled based solely on identifying as LGBT.”

Campbell was a leader for an on-campus equality group for LGBT students, and explains in his article that after being sexually assaulted by his boyfriend was not able to come forward to report the abuse because of the risk of being expelled if his sexuality was brought to light. Campbell was forced to remain in classes with his attacker and eventually left the school due to emotional distress.

In their letter requesting exemption, NNU sited the Church of the Nazarene’s handbook stance on sexuality and gender identity saying, “We reject all attempts at constructing sexuality or sexual identity by medically altering the human body, cross dressing, or similarly practicing behaviors characteristic of the opposite sex as morally objectionable and sinful.”

SNU’s exemption request contained similar language such as, “Sexual practices that are divorced from loving, conventional relationships between man and woman conflict with God’s intentions and result in sinful behavior that separates man from God and threatens salvation.”

While Olivet is not seeking Title IX exemption they are exempt on the basis of religion for certain hiring practices as defined in their Equal Employment Opportunity Policy:

“The University complies with all applicable laws regarding nondiscrimination in employment, including those with respect to race, color, age, sex, national origin, marital status, military service, and disability. As a religious and education institution operating under the auspices of the Church of the Nazarene, Olivet is permitted by law to consider religious beliefs, religious practice, and conduct inappropriate with the mission statement of the University in making employment decisions, admission, educational decisions, and Olivet does so in order to fulfill its mission. Olivet does not, however, tolerate sexual harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking of any member of its community.”

“I do enjoy the environment, and I do love it, but I came here knowing that at any time the school could not want me here,” Davis said, regarding the other school’s requesting exemption. “The idea is a little sad to think that a school wouldn’t really care about me or my safety, or things that could happen to be because of my sexuality.”

-Erica Browning, Features Editor

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