The secular culture we live in has changed radically over the last few decades in the area of sexual norms and values. Dissenting voices, especially religious ones, can meet with swift condemnation, or worse. And, now that same-sex marriage has been imposed on the country by the U.S. Supreme Court as a new constitutional right, religious viewpoints on campus that contradict the new sexual orthodoxy can carry a steep cost. Here is what parents and their college-bound sons and daughters (and existing college students) need to know about government hostility to religion and its effect on campus.
Federal Agency Overreach – Title IX
In 1972, Congress passed an education-related provision known as “Title IX” which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs or activities that receive federal funding. Colleges, of course, are the principal actors to which this law applies, if they receive federal funds directly from the federal government, or through government loans and grants to students attending the school. The law as originally purposed did not generally infringe anyone’s religious freedom, and to the extent the law impacted religious colleges in a way that violated their religious beliefs or practices, religious exemptions were available and automatically granted. As a result, Title IX proved to be a non-issue, as far as religious freedom on campus is concerned, for more than four decades.
That changed when the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) announced in 2014, that it would interpret the word “sex” in the original law to include “gender identity” (i.e., those who claim their gender to be different than their biological sex). Although Congress has never amended Title IX to include either gender identity or sexual orientation as synonyms for the word “sex,” several federal agencies, including the DOE have unilaterally announced the new policy adding those terms to the sex discrimination rules colleges must abide by.
Matters came to a head in March 2016, when a "Dear Colleague" letter was sent from the DOE and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to all educational institutions receiving federal funds. The joint letter warned institutions that they risked losing their federal funding if they didn’t follow DOE’s “gender identity” policy. The bottom line: Schools were coerced to allow males claiming to be females to use female restrooms, locker rooms, housing as well as participate in women’s sports (and vice versa) or lose millions in federal funds. In August 2016, a federal judge temporarily blocked this policy from being enforced; and the Trump Administration revoked the “Dear Colleague” letter as one of its first actions. However, the policy’s revocation hasn’t prevented a few federal courts from “legislating” the same policy by judicial decree and a final determination of the legal issues will take months, perhaps years, to resolve.
A political agenda of re-defining what Christians understand as God’s design for “male” and “female” can impact Christians on campus in a variety of unexpected ways. One may find housing rules that assign a biological male, but who identifies as a woman, to a dorm room with a female. It creates privacy and safety issues by opening up bathrooms, shower rooms, locker rooms and other typically sex-segregated areas to the opposite sex. Campuses caught up in the political correctness of gender-identity issues are even promoting the idea people should be called by any pronoun they choose, rather than the obvious choices of “he” and “she.” One university administration has warned students that calling someone by the wrong pronoun violates federal law.
Tax-Exempt Status Of Religious Colleges
Another concern is that religious colleges, the vast majority of which are nonprofit, tax-exempt institutions, could lose their tax-exempt status for sticking to biblical principles regarding marriage and sexuality. Colleges with statements of faith and/or codes of conduct that, for example, affirm sexual purity until marriage and prohibit all sexual immorality, including homosexuality, may be found guilty of “discrimination,” which the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) may use to deny tax-exempt status of said religious college(s). (There is a precedent for such an action by the IRS in the case of race discrimination.) Losing tax-exempt status over the issue of same-sex marriage would make it difficult for most religious educational institutions to survive financially.
The danger of this happening is very real. During Supreme Court oral arguments in the 2015 Obergefell same-sex marriage case, the chief lawyer for the U.S. government admitted under questioning from Justice Samuel Alito that the possibility of colleges losing their tax-exempt status because they objected to same-sex marriage was “certainly going to be an issue.”
States can vary widely in laws pertaining to religious freedom on campus. The aggressively liberal state Legislature in California proposed (and almost passed) a state law in 2016, which required faith-based colleges to give up their religious distinctiveness or risk losing state funding. If enacted, the bill would have jeopardized the opportunity for more than 16,000 underprivileged students in that state to attend the religious college of their choice. At the last minute, the objectionable parts of the bill were removed, but the bill’s gay identified sponsor warned he would most likely bring it up again in the future.
Conversely, other states have taken extra steps to protect freedom of religion on campus. Oklahoma and Kansas, for example, recently passed laws prohibiting their state-run colleges and universities from interfering with membership or leadership requirements of college clubs. We’ll look at the problem of Christian clubs on campus in more detail in the next article.
Government hostility to religion on campus is very real, but the degree can vary from institution to institution, and from state to state. Some states are fighting this trend by passing additional protections for students’ rights.
Next, we’ll examine particular school policies that have placed restrictions on free speech and free exercise of religion.