Everywhere we look, it seems that many of our long-held freedoms are being challenged. Whether it’s a preborn child’s right to life, an employee’s right to receive religious accommodations at work, or the right of everyone to exercise free speech, new lawsuits are filed daily that threaten to chip away, or eliminate altogether, a subset of American freedoms.
In March 2021, another such lawsuit was filed, threatening to jeopardize the rights of religious schools to operate according to their deeply held beliefs.
In Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education, the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), filed a class action lawsuit seeking “to nullify the religious exemption to Title IX that,” according to the plaintiffs, “allows widespread discrimination against LGBTQI students at faith-based colleges and universities.”
After almost two years, the district court recently dismissed the case.
What was the case about?
On March 30, 2021, REAP filed a class-action lawsuit “representing 33 LGBTQ students and alumni from religious colleges demanding that the U.S. Department of Education stop granting religious exemptions to taxpayer-funded religious colleges and universities that,” in their words, “discriminate against and abuse their LGBTQ students.” Virtual public hearings began in early June 2021.
Kristen Waggoner of Alliance Defending Freedom argued that at its core this lawsuit was an effort by activists “to strip all students at private religious colleges of federal financial aid” and “prevent any student from using tuition grants, student loans, and any other federal financial assistance at schools that operate according to biblical views about human sexuality.”
Likewise, the lawsuit—were it to be decided in the plaintiffs’ favor—would force religious schools “to either abandon their beliefs or lose the many students who rely on federal financial assistance.” It was an obvious attempt by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project to roll back some of our country’s longstanding legal protections for people of faith and religious institutions.
Responding to REAP’s lawsuit, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) requested that the court “allow three Christian colleges—representative of more than 1,000 others across the country—to intervene in the lawsuit and defend Title IX,” a U.S. Department of Education statute targeted by the lawsuit. The motion was granted in October 2021, and ADF proceeded to represent these three institutions (Corban University, William Jessup University, and Phoenix Seminary).
How was the case decided?
On Jan. 12, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon ruled to dismiss Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education “outright and continue to allow students to receive financial aid at schools that share their religious beliefs.”
Responding to the plaintiffs’ claims of discrimination and abuse, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken stated that “Plaintiffs have not plausibly alleged that the regulatory changes have led or contributed to the harm they have experienced.”
Though the opinion affirmed that Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, it affirmed the legality of the religious exemption and rejected arguments that the schools’ actions were in violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause. On all points, the plaintiffs’ arguments were deemed insufficient and implausible, leading to the court’s dismissal of the case.
In response to the multitude of angles REAP took to accomplish its goal of ending the so-called “abuses perpetrated under the religious exemption to Title IX,” the court delivered a definitive statement of support for religious liberty by dismissing this case.
While Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education was dismissed by the U.S. District Court, it will likely be appealed in the coming days.
What’s the ERLC’s response?
The ERLC applauds the court’s decision to dismiss this case. As others have argued, the lawsuit which precipitated the Hunter court case was an unfounded attempt to eliminate an essential freedom afforded to religious educational institutions and their students. No student of any faith should be deprived of their right “to attend a school that shares their beliefs” and no educational institution should be stripped of its freedom to “live out their deeply and sincerely held convictions.”
Religious liberty is a core conviction and key distinctive of the ERLC and the Southern Baptist Convention, and we heartily agree with the court’s dismissal. The ERLC will be tracking this case as it moves forward closely, and should the case be appealed, the ERLC will continue to stand firmly for the constitutional right of religious freedom.
What is Title IX?
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex-based discrimination in education, stating: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Title IX law is intended to provide equal opportunities for both men and women seeking to participate in educational institutions and extracurricular activities that receive federal funding.
“Title IX and its implementing regulations contain several exemptions and exceptions from its coverage,” including substantial religious exemptions, which is what REAP’s lawsuit sought to target. The ERLC has long been involved in protecting these vital religious exemptions, even as Title IX has been expanded and adapted.