Democratic lawmakers re-introduced the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act on Friday, which marked the 13th anniversary of the 18-year-old New Jersey college student’s death by suicide after he was targeted with homophobic harassment by his peers.
The bill, which establishes cyberbullying as a form of harassment, directing colleges and universities to share anti-harassment policies to current and prospective students and employees, was introduced by U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (Wis.) and Patty Murray (Wash.), along with U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (Wis.), Chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus.
Advocacy groups including the Tyler Clementi Foundation, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and The Trevor Project have endorsed the legislation, which comes as issues concerning anti-LGBTQ harassment in institutions of higher education have earned renewed scrutiny on Capitol Hill and beyond.
Earlier this month, the Washington Blade connected with an expert to discuss these and other subjects: Paul Southwick, a Portland, Oregon-based litigation attorney who leads a legal advocacy group focused on religious institutions of higher education and their treatment of LGBTQ and other marginalized communities.
On Tuesday, he shared a statement responding to Friday’s reintroduction of the Tyler Clementi bill, stressing the need for equal enforcement of its provisions in light of efforts by conservative Christian schools to avoid oversight and legal liability for certain federal civil rights regulations:
“We are still evaluating the bill regarding how the bill would interact with the religious exemption in Title IX,” Southwick said. “We fully support the expansion of anti-harassment protections for students and corresponding requirements for educational institutions.”
He added, “We also believe that such protections and requirements should extend to students at taxpayer funded, religiously affiliated educational institutions, regardless of whether those institutions claim, or receive, an assurance of religious exemption from Title IX regulations” through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
Baylor University’s unprecedented Title IX exemption
In response to a request from Baylor University, a conservative Baptist college located in Waco, Texas, the Education Department in July granted a first of its kind religious-based exemption from federal regulations governing harassment, a form of sex-based discrimination proscribed under Title IX.
Southwick explained that during the Obama administration, the federal government began to understand and recognize discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as forms of sex-based discrimination covered by the statute. The Biden-Harris administration issued a directive for the Education Department to formalize the LGBTQ inclusive definitions under Title IX, with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that is now underway at the agency.
Beginning with the Department’s 2010 “dear colleague” letter clarifying the administration’s view that discrimination against LGBTQ people constitutes sex-based discrimination under the law, Southwick said the pushback from religious schools was immediate. In the years since, many have successfully petitioned the Education Department for “exemptions so they can discriminate against queer, trans and non-binary people,” but these carveouts were limited “to things like admissions, housing, athletics.”
No one had argued that “federally funded educational institutions [should] have no regulation by the federal government as to whether they’re protecting their students from harassment,” he remarked – at least not until the Baylor case.
Addressing the unprecedented move in a letter to the Department on September 5, U.S. Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Greg Casar (D-Texas), Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) urged the agency to “clarify the narrow scope of this exemption and assure students at religious institutions that they continue to have protections against sex-based harassment.”
Southwick told the Blade other members of Congress have expressed an interest in the matter, as have some progressive nonprofit groups.
Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Department confirmed receipt of the lawmakers’ letter and said the agency will respond to the members.
The Department’s issuance of the exemption to Baylor came despite an open investigation into the university by its Office of Civil Rights over a Title IX complaint brought in 2021 by Southwick’s organization, the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), on behalf of a queer student who claimed she was subjected to homophobic abuse from other students while university officials to whom she reported the harassment failed to intervene.
It is not yet clear whether the agency will close its investigation as a result of its decision to exempt Baylor from Title IX’s harassment rules.
Veronica Bonifacio Penales, the student behind the complaint against Baylor, is also a plaintiff in REAP’s separate class action lawsuit challenging the Education Department’s practice of waving Title IX rules for faith-based colleges and universities – which, the plaintiffs argue, facilitates anti-LGBTQ discrimination in violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
The case, Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education, is on appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
Other religious schools are likely to follow Baylor’s lead
Southwick said the agency’s decision in the Baylor case “puts students at risk of harassment without a civil remedy against their school’s failures to properly address harassment,” adding, “Taxpayer funded educational institutions, whether religious or secular, should never be permitted to escape oversight from OCR in how they handle anti-harassment claims from LGBTQIA+ or other students protected by federal non-discrimination law.”
Buoyed by Baylor’s successful effort, requesting exemptions to Title IX rules for purposes of allowing the harassment of LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff is likely to become routine practice for many of America’s conservative institutions of higher education, Southwick said.
The nonprofit group Campus Pride maintains a list of America’s “absolute worst, most unsafe campuses for LGBTQ youth,” schools that “received and/or applied for a Title IX exemption to discriminate against LGBTQ youth, and/or demonstrated past history and track record of anti-LGBTQ actions, programs and practices.”
193 colleges and universities have met the criteria.
Many of the thousands of LGBTQ students enrolled in these institutions often have insufficient support, Southwick said, in part because “a lot of the larger civil rights organizations and queer rights organizations are very occupied, and rightly so, with pushing back against anti-trans legislation in the public sphere.”
Regardless, even in America’s most conservative schools like Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, Southwick noted that pro-equality students, faculty, and staff have pushed for change.
He added that while there are, no doubt, young people who harbor anti-LGBTQ views, “they often become much more progressive the longer they’re in school, because there’s just queer people coming out everywhere, you know, and it’s hard to hate people who are your friends.”
The powerful influence and role of financial incentives
Southwick said meaningful reform at the institutional level is made more difficult by the reality that “financial incentives from the government and from the market are aligned to favor the continuation of discrimination.”
“Once the money stops flowing, they will almost all instantly change their policies and start protecting queer students,” he said, but added that colleges and universities have little reason to change without the risk that discriminatory policies and practices will incur meaningful consequences, like the loss of government funding and accreditation.
Another challenge, Southwick said, is the tendency of institutions of higher education to often prioritize the wishes and interests of moneyed alumni networks, boards of trustees, and donors, groups that generally skew older and tend to be more conservative.
Southwick said when he and his colleagues at REAP discuss proposed pro-LGBTQ reforms with contacts at conservative religious universities, they are warned “over and over again,” that “donors will be angry.”
Following the establishment of nationwide prohibitions against segregation and other forms of racial discrimination with passage of the federal 1964 Civil Rights Act and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which applied to public schools, and Runyon v. McCrary (1976), which covered private schools, Southwick noted that “A lot of Christian schools and college colleges continued to deny admission to black students.”
One by one, however, the so-called “segregation academies” would permanently close their doors or agree to racial integration, Southwick said – buckling under pressure from the U.S. government’s categorical denial of federal funding to these institutions, coupled with other factors like the decision of many professional associations to deny membership to their professors and academics.
Another important distinction, Southwick added: unlike Title IX, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “does not have a religious exemption.”
Story courtesy of the Washington Blade via the National LGBTQ Media Association. The National LGBTQ Media Association represents 13 legacy publications in major markets across the country with a collective readership of more than 400K in print and more than 1 million + online. Learn more here: https://nationallgbtmediaassociation.com/