A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit by 40 LGBTQ+ individuals against the U.S. Department of Education challenging a provision of Title IX that allows religious colleges to seek exemptions from the civil rights law’s bar against sex-based discrimination.
U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene, Oregon, on Thursday wrote that exempting religious schools from Title IX to avoid interfering with their convictions is “substantially related to the government’s objective of accommodating religious exercise.”
The Religious Exemption Accountability Project, an advocacy group representing LGBTQ+ former and current students who said they were discriminated against at religious colleges, sued in 2021 to have the exemption declared unconstitutional.
The group argued that the exemption violated the students’ equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution by treating them differently than other students due to their sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.
But Aiken said that while the plaintiffs’ complaint was replete with allegations of unequal treatments of LGBTQ+ students by religious schools such as Bob Jones University and Baylor University, they failed to show any discriminatory motivation by Congress in enacting the exemption.
She also rejected their argument that the exemption ran afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion by Congress, saying they failed to show how the federal government, in contrast to the schools, advanced religion.
The U.S. Department of Justice defended the exemption, though it agreed with the plaintiffs that Title IX bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Three Christian colleges, Corban University, William Jessup University and Phoenix Seminary, which were represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, intervened to argue that the prohibition on sex discrimination in Title IX did not go that far.
The plaintiffs said they were considering an appeal.
“It’s frustrating that the Court has enough sense to know we’ve been hurt and impacted but still won’t do anything to prevent this discrimination from continuing to happen,” one of the student plaintiffs, Rachel Held, said in a statement.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 bars sex-based discrimination in schools and colleges that receive federal funding, though religious institutions can request exemptions to adhere to beliefs that are inconsistent with that prohibition.
The Education Department under Democratic President Joe Biden in June 2021 issued guidance that interpreted that sex-based discrimination prohibition to also bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
It did so citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, holding that Title VII’s bar against sex discrimination in the workplace, which is similar to Title IX’s language, covered gay and transgender workers.