FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

March 30, 2021

 

Contact:

Cindi Creager, CreagerCole Communications

(646) 279-4559, cindi@creagercole.com

LGBTQ Students File Class Action Lawsuit Against U.S. Department of Education for Discrimination at the Hands of Evangelical & LDS Colleges

Religious Exemption Accountability Project Represents 33 Plaintiffs from 25 Evangelical & LDS Schools in 18 States; Complaint Argues Religious Exemptions from Title IX Are Unconstitutional

The Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) today 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. 

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“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,” said Paul Southwick, Attorney and Director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project.  “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.” 

 

"The toxic theologies of white Christian Supremacy have real consequences on the lives and education of LGBTQI people across the country. This isn't about hurt feelings over being denied wedding cakes or bouquets. This case clearly shows how some Christian institutions have stolen the God of love and life and replaced good theologies with violent ones that cause harm to the minds, bodies, and spirits of this nation's young people," said Rev. Alba Onofrio, co-executive director of Soulforce, the non-profit organization that sponsors REAP. "As a Christian minister, I believe we should all be outraged that the Word of God is being used for such widespread evil and systemic violence."

 

The plaintiffs include those listed below who explained in signed declarations how specific colleges have upended their lives and why they are seeking an end to the discrimination. 

 

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,” Zayn said. “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,” Elizabeth said. “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 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,” Alex said. “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,” Veronica said.