A first-of-its-kind federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Title IX religious exemption was filed in U.S. District Court on March 29, and its backers are hoping for a landmark ruling for LGBTQ students' rights and protections.
The suit, Hunter v. Department of Education, features 33 plaintiffs from 25 evangelical colleges throughout the country, including George Fox University in Newberg.
Audrey Wojnarowisch, a GFU student, is among the plaintiffs who've identified gaps in protections for LGBTQ students at religious universities and allegedly experienced discrimination. Plaintiffs are represented by Portland-based lawyer Paul Southwick, a graduate of GFU in 2005 who says he experienced traumatic and discriminatory incidents of his own during his time at the university.
"As society is getting a lot more accepting of LGBTQ people, and the law is advancing in our favor, things are not getting better for LGBTQ students at Christian colleges," Southwick said. "In some cases, it is getting worse. That's a result of a lot more young people identifying with the LGBTQ community and feeling more accepted by society at large, but not their universities.
"We are asking the court to declare that the religious exemption to Title IX is unconstitutional as a violation of both the First Amendment provision on establishment of religion as well as the equal protections clause and due process rights guaranteed to every American. The Department of Education is the defendant because they are the ones who handle Title IX complaints."
As things stand, if an LGBTQ student files a Title IX complaint with the Department of Education, a school can request an exemption from following the law on religious grounds. GFU requested and was granted such an exemption in 2014 after a transgender student was denied housing with the gender they identified with. Southwick represented the student in that case as well, and he has an extensive history of representing LGBTQ students at religious schools throughout the country.
Southwick's passion for the issue is rooted in personal experience. As a GFU student in the early 2000s, his sexual attraction to men — and attitudes toward homosexuality in the religious community — was a source of tremendous anxiety.
He sought help from counselors at GFU, who advised him to attend conversion therapy and watch heterosexual pornography to turn himself straight, he alleged. These strategies have no scientific basis and conversion therapy programs are illegal in 20 states — including Oregon since 2015 — he added.
GFU has since made efforts to publicly acknowledge the LGBTQ experience, but homosexual relationships remain forbidden under university rules, and some current students say they still feel marginalized for their identities. It remains the university position — based on its interpretation of the Bible — that marriage is between one man and one woman, and that God created humans in the divine image as strictly male and female.
Wojnarowisch and plaintiffs from other Christian colleges believe that hollow statements of support for LGBTQ students are contradictory to the universities' actions and foundational belief systems, which they say oppress and marginalize LGBTQ people.
"When Christian queer people reach out for help, the response is usually, 'why are you there in the first place?'" Wojnarowisch said. "Why would I choose to go to a religious institution? The implication there is that, because I chose to go to a Christian school, I should have known there would be discrimination there. But there's more nuance there than many people understand and my queer and Christian identity are inseparable from each other.
"This is the only university I applied to because I know this is where God was calling me. I wanted so badly to be part of the culture of George Fox, which promises to intimately care for and know its students, and for my professors and classmates to know my name and connect with me. My queer identity has ostracized me from being able to experience that in the way that my cisgender, heterosexual classmates have."
Wojnarowisch claims she is barred from many of the protections and resources that are important for all and often lifesaving in the case of LGBTQ students. She said that when she experienced a sexual assault on campus, she was unable to get the help and support she needed because she and her alleged assaulter were queer, and in her view the campus culture is not accepting of LGBTQ students, even as victims.
The federal lawsuit, Wojnarowisch said, has implications for LGBTQ students at religious schools throughout the country. But she emphasized it should not be framed as a conflict between the LGBTQ community and religion in general.
"My goal and the goal of this lawsuit is not to secularize Christian universities," she said. "I chose very intentionally to come to a Christian institution and want faith to be integrated into my higher education experience. But there are prejudices that are engrained into the culture, the ethos, and the policies at institutions like George Fox."
Officials from GFU directed interested parties to their statements on LGBTQ and specifically transgender issues, which can be found at www.georgefox.edu/lgbtq/index.html and www.georgefox.edu/transgender/index.html. In a statement, the university said it found no record of a Title IX complaint by Wojnarowisch despite her involvement in the lawsuit, and that it has contacted Wojnarowisch about the alleged incident of sexual assault.
"After learning about the complaint in the lawsuit, university staff contacted (Wojnarowisch) and are working with her to implement appropriate supportive measures and to determine whether she wishes to pursue a formal investigation," the university said.
"All university staff, including those who live in student housing as resident assistants, are trained to appropriately handle every complaint. The formal complaint investigation is handled by senior staff who have extensive additional training in how to handle sexual misconduct complaints. This policy applies to all students and staff regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or any other attribute."
Going beyond one university's handling of one specific incident, the Hunter v. Department of Education lawsuit focuses on equal protection for LGBTQ students at private, religious universities — legal protections that their peers in public, secular institutions already receive. Universities like GFU can make general statements of support for LGBTQ students, but what Wojnarowisch and her fellow plaintiffs are seeking is full acceptance and equity.
"Often, Christian evangelical culture will extend a hand to people they disagree with out of an intent to love, but the impact of their actions is still harmful," Wojnarowisch said. "George Fox needs to find a way to teach its students that you cannot approach queer students by saying, 'I love you, but I hate your identity, and I hate the things about you that make you who you are.' That doesn't work, and that's an important part of my and so many other stories."
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