Andrew Hartzler was not allowed to be gay on campus. So he continues.

While at ORU, the now 23-year-old Hartzler diligently concealed his sexual identity from school officials to avoid punishment that would jeopardize his degree. During his freshman year, he was called into a dean’s office after being reported for having his boyfriend, who was not an ORU student, in his dorm. Facing the possibility of punishment and even expulsion from the university, Hartzler was granted an unexpected reprieve when Covid closed the campus. He managed to avoid a series of “accountability meetings” with deans, leave campus and complete his degree in psychology remotely, graduating in May 2021.

Within three months of graduating, Hartzler joined a class action lawsuit against the Department of Education, asking the court to overturn the religious exemption as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the first amendment and equal student protection rights. The complaint, filed in federal court in Oregon in 2021, recounts startling details of the original 33 plaintiffs. A complainant alleges authorities at Bob Jones University combed through her social media and disciplined her for refusing to disavow her support for LGBTQ rights. Gay man claims Union University rescinded his offer of admission after finding out he was engaged to a man; another, who felt called to ministry and enrolled in Fuller Seminary, was expelled after only a few days because he was married to a man. A common theme, according to the complaint, is how school authorities review students’ social media posts for evidence of their sexual orientation or gender identity, or support for LGBTQ rights.

“At Union University, we believe that all people have inherent dignity and should therefore be treated with kindness and respect,” a school spokesperson said. “This questionable lawsuit is a reckless effort to obliterate religious schools by denying financially disadvantaged students the opportunity to attend the college of their choice. It’s a misguided attempt to throw out an act of Congress that has been consistently upheld and enforced by every presidential administration — both Democratic and Republican — for more than four decades. (Fuller Seminary and Bob Jones University did not respond to requests for comment.)

Paul Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, which advocates for the rights of LGBTQ students at Christian colleges and universities, and plaintiffs’ attorney, says even undisciplined students endure a culture of pervasive anxiety and fear. “These policies that criminalize their identities and behaviors are like this dark cloud hanging over their heads,” Southwick said. “It forces them to stay in the closet, to hide, to be super vigilant about their behavior.” At many of these universities, Southwick said “your identity is forbidden”.

The Title IX Religious Exemption ensures that, despite historic advances in LGBTQ rights over the past decade, religious colleges and universities are not required to change their policies in accordance with these new laws, while receiving funding. subsidized by taxpayers. According to the REAP complaint, religious colleges and universities that benefit from the exemption received collective federal funding of $4.2 billion in 2018 alone. Much of that comes in the form of federal student loans and financial aid, but the pandemic has also brought even more help. Oral Roberts University, for example, also received a $7.3 million award in 2020 under the CARES Act, and additional $9.1 million as part of an education stabilization fund to help schools during the pandemic, according to a federal funding database. Without federal aid, many students could not afford to attend these schools. But to keep federal money flowing without the religious exemption, schools would have to change their policies, which they say would eviscerate the Christian character of their institutions. (ORU did not respond to interview or comment requests for this story.)

The REAP trial comes at a time when the religious right is experiencing a rise in political power. The movement is on the verge of a major victory in its decades-long fight against abortion, and Republican legislatures and governors across the country are passing anti-LGBTQ laws such as the highly controversial Florida law dubbed “Don’t t Say Gay” by critics, banning LGBTQ books and criminalizing gender-affirming care for trans minors. But the lawsuit challenging the religious exemption poses a potential existential threat to a foundation of the evangelical movement. Christian schools trained the thinkers who promoted and championed a legal strategy that dates back to the 1970s, when early modern religious right organizing centered not on abortion but on protecting Christian schools and universities from kindergarten to 12th grade against having to conform to racial rules. non-discrimination policies. Christian schools lost the battle against race decades ago, but the central argument they use to perpetuate anti-LGBTQ policies is the same: for a secular government to require Christian educational institutions that they comply with civil rights law is an unacceptable violation of their religious beliefs, regardless of the discriminatory impact on the students who attend them.

Barry F. Howard