Judge rejects constitutional challenges to Title IX’s religious exemption

A federal judge dismissed efforts by an LGBT-rights group to force the Education Department to investigate religious universities for discrimination under Title IX, even when the discrimination is religiously-motivated and thus falls within a Title IX exemption. The LGBT rights group said the Title IX religious exemption is unconstitutional, and that it violates the Establishment Clause by preferring religious institutions, and also violates equal-protection guarantees by discriminating against LGBT people.

The judge disagreed in her decision in Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education. She cited a 1987 Supreme Court decision that rejected an Establishment Clause challenge to an exemption in a workplace antidiscrimination law for religious institutions. She also cited the fact that equal-protection guarantees aren’t violated by a religious exemption unless the exemption is rooted in bigotry, and the fact that there was no bigotry in the legislative history of the exemption.

Judge Ann Aiken, a Democratic appointee, ruled on January 12 in favor of Christian colleges and against the Religious Exemption Accountability Project. The group sought to force Christian colleges to accept men into women’s locker rooms and embrace other parts of the LGBT agenda.

Such exemptions allow religious universities to prohibit students from being in same-sex relationships, for example.

The group sued the United States Department of Education, but the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities was added as an intervenor in the case, because the Biden administration might not adequately represent its interests, and it would be affected by the outcome of the lawsuit.

The LGBT-rights group has argued that neither the Constitution nor the Religious Freedom Restoration Act authorizes the exemption contained in Title IX regulations.  The Religious Freedom Restoration Act “does not protect taxpayer-funded actions that harm LGBTQ+ students,” attorney Paul Southwick, who led the failed effort, previously said.

Judge Aiken disagreed. “The text of RFRA is clear that government granting exemptions does not constitute a violation, unless impermissible under Establishment Clause principles,” she wrote. “Plaintiffs also fail to allege facts to demonstrate that it is Defendants—the government actor— that has burdened Plaintiffs religious beliefs.”

Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the Council of Christian Colleges, celebrated the decision.

“A federal district court today rightly rejected an unfounded assault on the religious freedom of faith-based educational institutions,” said ADF attorney David Cortman. “Title IX, which applies to schools receiving federal financial assistance, explicitly protects the freedom of religious schools to live out their deeply and sincerely held convictions.”

“A group of activists asked the court to strip that protection away from schools that educate the next generation and advance the common good,” Cortman said. “The court correctly concluded that Title IX’s religious liberty exemption doesn’t violate any of the plaintiffs’ claimed rights.”

The advocacy group behind the lawsuit criticized the judge’s decision. “Because of today’s decision, tens of thousands of LGBTQIA+ students across the country will continue to be discriminated against at universities receiving taxpayer money,” the LGBT-rights group said. “The Religious Exemption Accountability Project will continue to fight to protect LGBTQIA+ students’ rights on these campuses.”

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