Today, HRC called on the Department of Education to take action in light of a disturbing trend by religious colleges and universities to request exemptions from existing civil rights law in order to discriminate against LGBT students. In a comprehensive new report, HRC details the growing trend and calls on the Department of Education to publicly document for students and Congress which colleges are claiming their ability to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and to require each institution to make publicly available the exemptions they request and obtain so that students know their rights.
The report, titled Hidden Discrimination: Title IX Religious Exemptions Putting LGBT Students at Risk, spotlights 56 colleges and universities based in 26 states across every region of the country – which collectively have nearly 120,000 students - that have requested religious exemptions under Title IX since 2013.
These institutions have utilized a little-known provision in the law that allows educational institutions controlled by a religious organization to request an exemption from full compliance with the law if “application of the law would conflict with specific tenets of the religion.”
“There is an alarming and growing trend of schools quietly seeking the right to discriminate against LGBT students, and not disclosing that information publicly,” said HRC President Chad Griffin. “We believe that religious liberty is a bedrock principle of our nation, however faith should never be used as a guise for discrimination. Prospective students and their parents deserve greater transparency, and we urge the Department of Education to take action by helping to increase accountability and to ensure that no student unknowingly enrolls in a school that intends to discriminate against them.”
The rate of schools receiving exemptions based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity has increased dramatically. Since 2013, 33 have received exemptions from protections that relate to gender identity, and 23 have received exemptions relating to sexual orientation. These schools have a combined total enrollment of at least 73,000 students and receive more than 50,000 applicants each fall.
Although best known for its impact on women’s athletic programs, Title IX protects students from sex discrimination in a broad array of areas at colleges and universities – including admissions, housing, recruitment, athletics, facilities, financial assistance, and counseling services. With a growing recognition that Title IX protects students on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation – including recent case law, Department of Education guidance, and school district settlements that support the use of it by LGBT students seeking legal recourse – the law serves as a vital tool to combat the discrimination and harassment that LGBT students face.
While the Department of Education has little discretion to deny these requests for exemptions, religiously controlled educational institutions should not be exempt from full transparency. To help protect and inform prospective students and parents, in the report HRC calls on:
- the Department of Education to require schools to publish comprehensive information about the scope of the exemption they received and the way in which Title IX still protects students;
- the Department of Education to regularly report which educational institutions have been granted Title IX religious exemptions, the scope of those exemptions, and ensure the information is provided on the individual schools’ landing page as part of College Navigator; and
- Congress to amend the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) governing statute to require OCR to annually report the number of Title IX exemptions that were requested, granted, and denied.
LGBT students face discrimination and harassment at an alarming rate. According to a 2010 study, lesbian, gay, and bisexual college students are nearly twice as likely to experience harassment when compared with their non-LGB peers, and are seven times more likely to indicate the harassment was based on their sexual orientation. In the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, one-fifth of transgender students reported that they were denied gender-appropriate housing, and five percent reported outright denial of campus housing. LGBT college students also suffer from higher rates of sexual assault and misconduct on America’s campuses; transgender and gender nonconforming students report one of the highest rates of sexual assault and misconduct.