Story at a glance

  • The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has said it is initiating a Title IX investigation into a Christian university after a former student said she was discriminated against based on her gender identity.
  • However, educational institutions controlled by a religious organization may seek an exemption from Title IX if the “application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization,” according to an OCR policy.
  • Religious Exemption Accountability Project, which filed the complaint on behalf of Hargrove, also filed a class action lawsuit against the DOE last year challenging the constitutionality of the religious exemption to Title IX.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) last week said it would be launching a Title IX investigation into Lincoln Christian University in Illinois following a complaint from a former student.

Kalie Hargrove, an openly transgender woman and former LCU student, was discriminated against by the university based on her gender identity, according to the complaint filed by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) on her behalf. 

“In August 2021, the University discriminated against Kalie Hargrove (Student A) on the basis of sex (gender identity) by directing her either to withdraw from classes or face discipline because she publicly identified as transgender,” the OCR wrote in a letter to REAP notifying the group of the agency’s investigation.

Under Title IX protections, educational institutions receiving federal financial assistance may not discriminate against any individual on the basis of sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity.


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However, educational institutions controlled by a religious organization may seek an exemption from Title IX if the “application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization,” according to an OCR policy.

According to REAP’s website, the group’s primary aim is to empower queer, trans, and nonbinary students at more than 200 taxpayer-funded religious colleges and universities that “actively discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.”

A class action lawsuit filed last year by REAP against the Department of Education (DOE) challenges the constitutionality of the religious exemption to Title IX.

According to the lawsuit, the DOE has been complicit “in the abuses that thousands of LGBTQ+ students endured at taxpayer-funded religious colleges and universities.”

Attorneys from the Justice Department in June updated the department’s court filing to emphasize that while the law will be defended in court, the policy is also under review by the DOE.

"The Department of Education is conducting a comprehensive review of its regulations implementing [the law], which sets forth the current administration's policy on guaranteeing an educational environment free from discrimination on the basis of sex,” government attorneys wrote in the amended filing.

"But until that process is complete, it would be premature to conclude that the government is an inadequate representative,” they added.

While the initiation of the OCR’s investigation is a step in the right direction, REAP said it wasn’t entirely hopeful that any substantial change would come of it.

“We are glad to see the Office for Civil Rights take this important step in protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ students at taxpayer-funded religious colleges,” REAP founder and director, Paul Southwick, said in a statement. “However, we fear that the religious exemption to Title IX will likely result in the dismissal of Kalie’s complaint.”

For her part, Hargrove has requested to join as a plaintiff in REAP’s lawsuit against the DOE. She’s unsure what will happen with her own case.

“You don’t want to get your hopes up because there’s no indication so far that the government gives a damn about LGBTQ+ students at religious schools,” she said.


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Published on Jan 13, 2022