Since the beginning of the Trump-Pence administration, the Department of Education, under the leadership of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, has worked to undermine the protections and enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws. These actions, from withdrawing important guidance that clarified schools’ obligations to protect transgender students from discrimination under Title IX to rescinding Obama-era Title IX guidance related to schools' obligations to address sexual harassment and sexual violence, disproportionately impact LGBTQ people.
Yet, despite these actions and a broader conversation around the prevalence and need to address sexual harassment and sexual violence, House Republicans on the Education and Workforce Committee have unveiled a bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) that would continue the Department of Education’s attacks on the civil rights of students, including survivors of sexual harassment and violence.
The ‘‘Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform Act,’’ or PROSPER Act, has many problematic provisions that would negatively impact the LGBTQ community, from allowing discrimination to rolling back protections for survivors of sexual violence.
Many colleges and universities have non-discrimination policies that apply to all officially recognized student groups. These policies ensure that any student can join, participate, and seek leadership in these organizations that often receive funding from the school. But the PROSPER Act would create a special exemption just for religious groups to allow them to openly violate non-discrimination policies and still receive funding and all the privileges given to other groups.
Another provision, modeled after the anti-LGBTQ First Amendment Defense Act, could undermine federal, state, and local non-discrimination protections by allowing colleges and universities to ignore these non-discrimination laws simply because they have a religious mission. And another section prioritizing religious speech over all other speech could undermine important protections against harassment.
The PROSPER Act also undermines protections for survivors of sexual harassment and assault on campus. Current regulations require that colleges and universities provide an equitable process to responding to claims of sexual harassment and assault. But the PROSPER Act would allow schools to choose what standard of evidence they use, and many could use a strict standard that makes it harder for survivors to get justice, tipping the scales in favor of rapists.
It also contains a provision that would allow schools to considerably delay investigations into a case of sexual assault if there is also a separate law enforcement investigation. Meanwhile, the sexual assault survivor could be forced to continue interactions with their abusers in their dorms or classes.
LGBTQ people are disproportionately affected by sexual assault and harassment, and the stigma that many LGBTQ people face can make it more difficult for survivors to report. Studies suggest that nearly half of bisexual women have been raped and half of transgender people will experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetimes. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a national survey of high school students, lesbian and bisexual women and gay and bisexual men experienced higher rates of sexual assault than their straight counterparts. These changes to campus’ handling of sexual violence would therefore disproportionately impact LGBTQ students.
The PROSPER Act is being marked up by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce today. HRC opposes the PROSPER Act and will be working with our coalition partners to ensure it does not become law.