The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has launched three new investigations — bringing the total number of investigations launched this year to six overall — into religiously-affiliated colleges over alleged violations of the rights of LGBTQ students.
The three most recent colleges to be investigated are: Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Virginia; La Sierra University, in Riverside, California; and Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, California. OCR previously opened three investigations into other religiously-affiliated schools, starting with Clarks Summit University, in South Abingdon Township, Pennsylvania and Lincoln Christian University in Lincoln, Illinois, in January, and Colorado Christian University, in Lakewood, Colorado, in April.
The investigations were launched in response to complaints, filed by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, alleging the universities violated students’ rights under Title IX when it discriminated against them based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Several students filed a lawsuit last year challenging the Education Department’s habit of granting exemptions from Title IX to religiously-affiliated colleges and universities condones, arguing that the process encourages discrimination against LGBTQ students who attend those institutions.
For example, in the complaint against Liberty University, REAP alleges that Liberty regularly discriminates against LGBTQ students through its policies and practices, including its statement on sexuality and relationships in the Student Honor Code and the role of the on-campus group Armor Bearers. The complaint also alleges that, between 2008 and 2012, the school discriminated against Luke Wilson, a former student and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, by classifying his LGBTQ identity as a violation of the Honor Code and pressuring him to undergo conversion therapy if he wished to avoid punishment.
“I am beyond delighted that Liberty is (finally) being investigated for its conversion therapy program — a program that was in operation for over a decade,” Wilson said in a statement. “As a survivor of Liberty’s one-on-one conversion therapy program and as one who went to one of the group conversion therapy meetings on campus, I have since worked to raise awareness about this heinous practice that has ravaged the lives of countless queer Liberty students.”
Similar policies are in place or have been enacted at the other schools being investigated. For instance, La Sierra University, which is affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, has policies and practices, including in its student handbook, that endorse the Seventh-day Adventist doctrine on homosexuality, which is that sexual intimacy belongs only within the confines of a one-man, one-woman relationship. The university has been accused of discriminating against LGBTQ students by refusing to recognize the LGBTQ student group on campus, and against one student in particular, by failing to act after a faculty member and guest lecturer both made homophobic and disparaging comments about LGBTQ individuals in class.
Azusa Pacific University is being investigated not only for its policies and Student Handbook guidelines prohibiting sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage, but for refusing to recognize the LGBTQ student group on campus, changes made to its policy prohibiting same-sex dating, and a letter sent to the university about the policy change that left a particular LGBTQ student in fear of being punished and having their scholarship revoked.
Colorado Christian University is being investigated not only for its policies prohibiting and punishing same-sex romantic relationships, but is accused of discriminating against a lesbian student by placing her on academic probation, removing her from student housing, requiring her to attend conversion therapy and mentorship meetings, and blocking access to LBGTQ-affirming resources on the University’s wi-fi.
Clarks Summit University is being investigated for a policy prohibiting students from engaging in same-sex relationships and from “cross-dressing or other actions deliberately discordant with birth gender,” as well as for allegedly discriminating against a gay student by expelling him and refusing to allow him to reenroll or graduate. Meanwhile, Lincoln Christian University is being investigated for allegedly discriminating against a transgender student by ordering her to either withdraw from classes or face discipline for her gender-nonconformity.
Both Lincoln Christian and Clarks Summit have already claimed religious exemptions from Title IX, which would enable them to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity due to their religious beliefs opposing homosexuality and gender-nonconformity. Some other religious colleges have previously requested exemptions for other actions consistent with their stated religious beliefs, such as punishing individuals who had abortions or became pregnant outside of marriage.
All six investigations into the colleges remain ongoing.