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33 LGBTQ Students/Alumni of Religious Colleges File Lawsuit Against U.S. Religious Exemptions

It’s a historic day for our growing movement to protect LGBTQ students at taxpayer-funded religious colleges.

Today, the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of 33 plaintiffs from 25 evangelical & LDS colleges in 18 states. The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, seeks to nullify the religious exemption to Title IX that allows widespread discrimination against LGBTQ students at faith-based colleges and universities across the nation. The plaintiffs include a mix of current students (some of whom are using a pseudonym for their safety), recently expelled students, and recent alumni who suffered conversion therapy and other discipline from their colleges for being LGBTQ.

REAP’s Director Paul Southwick says that the filing of our case today represents a monumental step towards holding these anti-LGBTQ religious colleges accountable:

“The 25 evangelical and LDS colleges our plaintiffs attend or recently attended, receive billions in taxpayer funding from the U.S. Department of Education but claim to be exempt from Title IX's protections for LGBTQ students Our lawsuit asks a federal court to declare that the religious exemption to Title IX, as applied to a class of LGBTQ+ students attending the more than 200 religiously affiliated colleges in the United States that openly discriminate against them, using taxpayer dollars, is unconstitutional. It is a violation of the First Amendment's prohibition on the establishment of religion and a violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ guarantee of Equal Protection under the law for LGBTQ+ Americans.”

Each of our 33 plaintiffs have their own story of discrimination and mistreatment at the hands of their college or university – ranging from forced conversion therapy, expulsion/denial of admission, harassment and mental health trauma.

Their stories were detailed in the filings submitted to the court today – and in the coming weeks and months, REAP will work to elevate their stories as a central element of our strategy to spark an overdue national conversation on the importance of protecting LGBTQ students from discrimination at religious colleges.

Here are just a few of the stories represented by our lawsuit:

Zayn Silva is a Black and Latinx transman from Brooklyn who was denied admission to Nyack College in Manhattan last year because of his gender identity.

“Nyack’s rejection hurt and caused me anxiety and to feel depressed. But the rejection also motivated me to continue living my purpose. My purpose in life is to minister to transgender people and to tell them the good news of God’s love, My hope is that Nyack and schools like it will become welcoming and open to all of God’s people, including transgender people.”

Elizabeth Hunter is a gay woman who grew up in the child welfare system, is a sexual assault survivor, and recently graduated from Bob Jones University where she was forced into the closet, fined by the university and fired from her campus position because of her sexual orientation and pro-LGBTQ social media posts.

“The campus culture at Bob Jones University is toxic for LGBTQ+ people. Homophobia among the student body, faculty and administration is rampant. LGBTQ+ people have to hide who we are and will suffer grave consequences if we come out and stand up for ourselves. I am participating in this lawsuit because I am hopeful that things will change. Experiencing hate and discrimination should not be a part of attending college.”

Alex Duron (right) with his partner.

Alex Duron is a gay, Latinx ICU nurse whose admission to a graduate nursing degree program was revoked during the pandemic by Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. Union revoked his admission because Alex lives and owns a home with his same-sex partner.

“Union’s policies denied me access to the federally-funded nursing program of my choice. A federally funded institution should not be able to pick and choose who can receive an education. I am a federal taxpayer. I also took out student loans from the U.S. Department of Education to attend Union. I should have been protected by Title IX, but I was not because of a religious exemption.”

The youngest plaintiffs are 18 and 19 years old, including Veronica Bonifacio Penales, a queer Filipino woman at Baylor University in Waco, Texas who lives under a continuous barrage of anonymously placed post-it notes on her dorm door that repeat the same homophobic slur (F**), while her university refuses to allow an LGBTQ+ student club on campus.

“I am participating in this lawsuit because I want Baylor to realize what it is doing is wrong and harmful. There is no excuse for ostracizing, discriminating against, and hurting their students.”

We’re grateful to each and every one of these students for bravely sharing their stories and putting it all on the line to finally hold these colleges accountable for the decades of mistreatment and abuse they have forced onto LGBTQ students.

You can meet all of our plaintiffs here – and then be sure to add your name here to join the growing nationwide movement of grassroots supporters who are committed to ending anti-LGBTQ discrimination at religious colleges nationwide.


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