Elizabeth Hunter said she became depressed and suicidal after administrators at Bob Jones University discovered social media posts where she talked about LGBTQ issues.
The former Bob Jones University student graduated in 2019 and is one of 33 plaintiffs listed on a federal lawsuit filed against the U.S. Department of Education in Oregon on March 29. The plaintiffs come from 25 different religious higher education institutions across the country.
The lawsuit claims a section of Title IX that allows religious exemptions is unconstitutional because it enables institutions to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals. It calls for a permanent injunction on Title IX religious exemptions relating to “sexual and gender minority students.”
Title IX is a federal law that prohibits educational institutions from discriminating on the basis of sex or gender, but a religious exemption in the law allows religious institutions to skirt the rule if following it would go against their religion.
According to the lawsuit, Hunter grew up in the foster care system before she was placed with a family in Texas who was “part of an infamous Christian fundamentalist cult.” She told The Greenville News she attended Bob Jones University because she believed it was the only college her parents would let her enroll in.
Hunter started attending Bob Jones University in 2015 and said she thrived in her first three years at the school, until during her junior year when she started realizing she is gay.
During the summer before her senior year in 2018, Hunter said Bob Jones officials interrogated her for several hours after she posted on Twitter “happy pride.” She said officials searched her social media and printed out posts where she talked about reading a book with lesbian characters and writing a book that included a lesbian relationship.
“I just didn’t think about my Twitter being a problem, because I never tagged Bob Jones. I never did anything to bring attention to disagreeing with the school’s stance on homosexuality,” Hunter said. “I didn’t want to be a troublemaker.”
Hunter said she never told university officials that she is gay, but that she was put on disciplinary probation for expressing support for LGBTQ people. The university removed Hunter from an on-campus job, required her to attend counseling with the dean of women and told her to pay a fine, according to the lawsuit.
She said she kept her sexuality hidden until more than a year after she graduated because she was worried about her professors learning the truth, and that she knows other Bob Jones University students who have felt they had to keep their sexuality a secret.
“We all live in fear of being caught, of being outed, of being expelled, of facing discipline for just existing,” Hunter said.
In a released statement, Bob Jones University spokesperson Randy Page said the school believes everyone has “inherent dignity” and should be treated with “kindness and respect,” and that the school “exercises its legally guaranteed religious freedom in a manner that upholds and reflects this bedrock principle.”
Page said the lawsuit is attempting to hurt religious schools by forcing them to comply with Title IX because of the federal funding they receive.
“Faith-based colleges and universities are an indispensable part of America’s diverse higher education picture. This lawsuit is an effort to erase religious schools from the scene by denying financially disadvantaged students the ability to attend the college of their choice. It’s a misguided attempt to discard a congressional enactment consistently respected and enforced by every presidential administration — both Democratic and Republican — for over four decades,” Page said in the statement. “BJU intends to vigorously protect its interests and encourages the Biden administration to fulfill its duty to defend a law that reflects the best traditions of American liberty.”
A statement on the university’s website describes same-sex relationships as “sinful” and says God created “two distinct but equal genders.” The statement also says the university expects all employees and students “to agree with and abide by this statement on marriage, human sexuality, and gender identity.”
Paul Southwick, an attorney representing the plaintiffs with the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, said the plaintiffs represent more than 100,000 LGBTQ students across the country who attend religious schools.
Southwick compared the issue to a Bob Jones University policy that banned interracial dating up until 2000.
“To this day, they continue a ban on same-sex dating, and the arguments are very similar in both cases,” Southwick told The Greenville News. “While the history of slavery and segregation is, of course, a very unique circumstance in American life, queer people have also been subjected to ridicule and disdain by both law and society, historically.”
Southwick said religious colleges receive billions in federal funding annually, and the U.S. Department of Education has never rejected a university’s Title IX religious exemption claim.
“The government shouldn’t be funding discrimination against a repressed minority,” Southwick said. “In this case, it would be sexual and gender minorities.”
The lawsuit comes a little more than a month after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, which would expand the Civil Rights Act by prohibiting discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.
The lawsuit was filed because of debate over adding religious exemptions to the Equality Act bill, Southwick told the Washington Post.
Bob Jones University President Steve Pettit released a statement on March 17 urging the community to oppose the Equality Act, saying it: “sends a clear message that dissenting views, including those espoused by Christian higher education institutions, do not deserve equal protection in society.”
In response to an email from The Greenville News, a spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Education pointed to an executive order President Joe Biden signed on March 8 guaranteeing “an educational environment free from discrimination,” including discrimination “on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.” The spokesperson also cited the religious exemption portion of Title IX.
Ariel Gilreath is a watchdog reporter focusing on education and family issues with The Greenville News and Independent Mail. Contact her at [email protected] and on Twitter @ArielGilreath.
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