Earlier this month, Southwestern Christian University expelled lesbian student Christian Minard after an administrator spotted her wedding photos on Facebook. The university claims Minard broke her “Lifestyle Covenant,” which prohibits all forms of homosexuality. Minard admits that she signed the covenant but insists that she’s been singled out for unfair treatments: Students at SCU, she notes, break the covenant all the time by drinking, smoking, and failing to stay fit—yet only she has been punished for her alleged transgression. The ACLU is backing Minard’s discrimination claim.
But SCU is in Oklahoma, which offers no legal protections for LGBTQ students. In fact, no federal law, as currently interpreted, protects gay students from being expelled for their sexual orientation. For trans students, the picture is a little rosier: Under President Barack Obama’s direction, the Department of Education has declared that Title IX prohibits anti-trans discrimination. And because Title IX applies to any university that receives federal funds, thousands of trans students across the country are, in theory, protected from discrimination by federal law.
In theory—but not in fact. Almost as soon as the Department of Education extended protections to trans students, it brutally undermined them by carving out a massive religious exemption. Last Friday, the department granted George Fox University, a small Christian college in Oregon, a religious exemption to Title IX after the school asked to refuse on-campus housing to a transgender student. The decision did not seem to be a difficult one; the department, which can take years to rule on exemptions, spent only two months mulling whether to give George Fox a license to discriminate.
At least George Fox didn’t expel its transgender student outright. That’s what happened at California Baptist University, where administrators kicked out a student for “fraud” because she applied under her actual gender and not her birth gender. But CBU didn’t just dismiss this student from the classroom: It forbade her from entering its off-campus business establishments like theaters, restaurants, and libraries because of her trans identity. The student sued and won the right to enter off-campus businesses. But the trial judge granted CBU the general right to expel trans students, based on its religious identity.
These colleges know the tide is turning against their unique brand of righteous prejudice—and they seem bent on claiming as many special rights to discriminate as possible while the going is still good. Not content merely to proscribe homosexuality among their student bodies, some are also trying to preserve a right to discriminate against faculty. Soon after Obama announced his plans to issue an executive ENDA, the president of Massachusetts’ Gordon College joined a letter requesting that he permit Christian-affiliated institutions the continued ability to fire employees—staff and professors, that is—for being gay or trans. If Obama grants Gordon its desired exemption, religiously affiliated colleges across the country will be able to claim, correctly, that they, too, have a legal right to fire professors for being gay.
The message that these colleges are sending to would-be students and faculty is clear: If you’re LGBTQ, we don’t want you. Whether you call this discrimination, bigotry, or “different understandings of social justice,” the underlying theme here is a depressing insistence that the right to practice religion must include the right to fire or expel people who are different from you. Religious leaders often dress up their demands for exemptions as a plea for tolerance. But in the wake of Hobby Lobby, it’s become overwhelmingly clear that for them, tolerance is a one-way street.