Why the Department of Education has it wrong to allow discrimination against trans students

Religious freedom is one of the most important rights in this country – to many, it’s what this country was founded on (never mind that this country was also founded on the oppression of other people’s spirituality, but that’s for another post). I believe that religious freedom should be honored and valued and protected. But when I say religious freedom, I mean religious freedom of individuals, not corporations, companies, schools, or organizational bodies.

The Federal Department of Education promised that trans students would be protected under law, particularly Title IX – the controversy erupted over trans students using bathrooms and showers. In rulings, schools were ordered to implement policy that would ensure that trans students do not feel any different or excluded than their cis counterparts. Good on you, Federal Department of Education.

Except not so fast: in three separate rulings, religious universities appealed to the Department of Education for exemption of the anti-sex discrimination rule and the requests were granted. Spring Arbor University in Michigan and Simpson University in California both want to be able to expel trans students because of the universities’ strong and “sincere” religious convictions, while George Fox University in Oregon was allowed to deny a trans male student housing in the male dorms for the same reasons.

The Feds argued that they had no other option but to grant these universities the right to discriminate because of their right to religious freedom. Now, let me make this clear – no one’s religious freedom has been threatened by the trans students – the Federal Government wasn’t threatening to make these colleges pro trans, nor were they even stepping in to change the schools’ policies on LGBT matters, but the schools and the government felt it was appropriate to grant individual freedoms and rights to institutions.

And that’s a problem.

Some will point out that lots of pro-gay companies and organizations have fired employees who have embraced anti-gay opinions – why is this any different? Others also point out that these universities are private institutions and should be able to dictate their own policies regarding their student bodies.

There are problems with these arguments.

They’re either short-sighted or they’re willfully obtuse: let’s be clear, we’re not talking about religious freedom, we’re talking about a specific kind of religions freedom; If Muslim institutions or less established faith-based colleges started asserting their more arcane and discriminatory dogma, I’m not as sure if the Feds or the Right would be so quick to defend. But the concern is if we allow for religious institutions that get Federal funding to enact discriminatory policy, what is stopping other institutions from following? And the problem with allowing for religious freedoms of an institution (vs. an individual’s right to religious freedom) is where will it end? We cannot know every religion or faith that is being practiced in this country. And what about cults? Are they also allowed to enact wacky policy simply because they have a “sincere” belief. Will child marriage be okay, now that we know that certain laws can be overrode because of religious belief?

I don’t have a problem with private entities being discriminatory as long as they don’t break the laws of their districts, counties, states, or any Federal laws. We have lots of examples of churches that preach anti-LGBT hate, and not only are they protected by the First Amendment, but many also reap many tax benefits because of their status and donations to churches are tax-exempt. And the schools I mentioned, along with many other religious institutions receive federal funding – tax money – that LGBT folks pay part of, so that these three schools can enjoy the privilege of discriminating against their students. If we are really committed to the idea of church and state (and I’m seeing evidence that we may not be), then these schools should be allowed to discriminate, but they should also lose Federal funding, and rely solely on personal donations that would not be tax-exempt.

Another argument I hearing/seeing comes from the left and from the LGBT community – these kids knew what kinds of schools they were applying to, why would any trans person in his/her right mind want to go to a school like that? Personally, I agree – I wouldn’t want to give a school like George Fox University money or my potential, but that’s me. And we on the left also like to forget that there are members in our community that are very religious, too. Being trans doesn’t make one automatically an atheist – it doesn’t even make someone automatically a liberal. It’s not our place to question the decisions trans people make in their education. That’s their business. Our business to advocate whenever we see some kind of injustice.

The Hobby Lobby won a judgment allowing it to deny birth control as part of its health insurance benefits for its employees. Again, the justification was religious. Like with the judgments allowing these schools to discriminate against their trans students, we only see a certain kind of fundamentalist Christian faith at play here. I’d love to see what will happen when conservative Muslim, Jewish, or Buddhist institutions begin to apply to the government for various privileges due to religious exemptions. It will be interested to see if those on the right who are vocally defending these practices will be as on board for that.

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