Why Are Some Colleges Being Exempted From Federal Civil Rights Protections?

Reports have emerged that some religious colleges are being given exemptions from federal sex discrimination protections. Why is this happening, and how common is the problem?

To dig into that, we first need a small bit of background over federal anti-discrimination protections. Title IX of the Civil Rights Act is a federal civil rights protection that broadly prevents discrimination in an educational setting on grounds of someone’s sex. This isn’t just confined to things like sex discrimination in sports, but spans the entirety of the education sector with only narrow exemptions. This has meant, for example, that universities and colleges cannot treat female students differently than male students purely on the basis of their sex.

Earlier this year, the Department of Education issued a determination saying that, and in keeping with the Obama administration’s other determinations on this issue, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act also covers transgender students and protects them from discrimination on grounds of their perceived or actual gender presentation and gender identity, again with some exceptions and caveats. It also appears that lesbian, gay and bisexual students are covered too.

This was hailed as a quiet but major win for LGBT students who until this point had little legal recourse due to the fact that there still isn’t an explicit law banning anti-LGBT discrimination.

Despite all this however, reports have emerged that a number of colleges and universities have successfully obtained wavers in order to be able to keep discriminating against LGBTs.

The Column reports:

The Department of Education has granted a waiver to 27 religious colleges and universities in 17 states over the last 18 months. The total enrollment of these schools tops 80,000 students, and nearly $130 million in federal research grants and student aid flowed to these institutions of higher learning in 2014. Those waivers are coming in at a rapid clip, and another 9 are pending as of August 2015. Though they span the United States, almost all are in the South or West.

Such waivers used to be relatively rare. However, it appears that following the Obama administration’s announcement that the Civil Rights Act already covers LGBT students, there has been a sharp increase in religiously affiliated institutions trying to obtain the waivers. In many cases these are institutions receiving tax-payer federal funds.

To be clear, and as the Department of Education website spells out, the waivers are usually granted on the basis that an educational institution has shown how waiving the statutory requirements in question, in this case Title IX provisions, will “increase the quality of instruction for students” and “improve the academic achievement of students.” For example, the institution might want to set up a special program for male students who, in its area, have been underachieving and, to ensure it remains compliant with the law, might seek out a narrow exemption for that program.

The freedom of information request that The Column used in order to obtain insight into the reasons for the requested waivers suggests that, far from achieving educational goals, the waivers may simply be being used to discriminate:

Thus far 36 schools have asked for the waiver. According to documents obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Column in July, these schools have asked the federal government for these waivers not only to deny enrollment to or expel transgender students, but the broad-based waiver requests have also targeted gay, lesbian, and bisexual students and staff. In some cases schools have even asked for, and been granted, a waiver to allow them to expel women who have been pregnant outside of marriage.

This is despite the fact that the waivers are not supposed to be granted specifically to get around civil rights laws (per Article 7 of Section C of the waivers policy). There is of course some leeway granted to religiously affiliated schools to define their admissions and education criteria based on their interpretation of their religious beliefs, however when they are being given federal funds, there appears to be a legitimate question of why they are being allowed to discriminate in such a broad way.

Campus Pride, an LGBT college rights and action group, has started a shame list around this new information, hoping to raise public awareness of the fact of these attempts to lawfully discriminate. Executive Director Shane Windmeyer is quoted as saying:

“Discrimination is never okay. For these schools to espouse that their religion sanctions discrimination against any young person is careless and life-threatening. This list needs to be made public every time a school files for a Title IX exemption. It is shameful and wrong. If a college receives public funding, it should have to follow public laws. The government would be perfectly within its rights to make taxpayer funded aid to these colleges contingent on compliance with generally applicable nondiscrimination laws.”

Legal experts appear to be suggesting that if a student in particular feels they have been discriminated against and the College points to such a waiver, they should seek legal help because the waivers can be appealed. Campus Pride is also calling on students to make official complaints to the Department of Education.

At the time of writing the Department of Education has not yet answered concerns, and the religious colleges seeking such waivers also appear to be staying tight-lipped.

Clearly though, the wider issue of religious groups and institutions using tax payer money to continue to discriminate will not be going away any time soon.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Timothy W.
Timothy W2 years ago

Margaret G.
I guess self choice has to do with life decisions being made by people who choose the right type religion, and the right sect of the right type religion. Just so I can fit in and follow the rules....I need to know how they choose which rules from their religions they are insisting we all follow and which ones we get a pass on. So if I can't be gay or transgendered because it goes against their religious beliefs does that also mean I can't go to school if I have been an adulterer, been disrespectful to my parents, or eaten shell fish. All of these things are mentioned more often in the bible. Or is it only the rules and laws that these people decide they wish to enforce. You know...the ones that are the less inconvenient for them to enforce. Or is that the ones they can enforce without breaking themselves?

Margaret G.
Margaret G2 years ago

RK Henry wrote, " ... another attack on Christianity without any consideration for self choice, ...".

I'm confused. What is self choice? Does every school applying for a waiver identify as Christian? Would RK Henry want federal dollars to go to an Islamic college that mandated burkhas for its female students?

Jordan G.
Jordan G2 years ago

Wow ...

Kamia T.
Kamia T2 years ago

I see where the Bible warned about false teachers and falling prey to their seduction, and it's becoming all too evident just how much of what is being promoted as "Christianity" probably has nothing to do with what Jesus would recognize as his instructions. So very sad.

Leonard Bowman
Leonard Bowman2 years ago

Sign outside a nearby church: "If it's not about love, it's not about God." Or as 1 John 4:8 puts it, "Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love."

Seems these colleges fall well short of being genuinely religious, huh?

Wendy Johnson-Niblick

Robert Fitzgerald, interesting comment. People try to take the Bible literally, but it was never meant to be literal. There have been Evil Churches in the past. Constantine perverting the cross into the symbol of a sword, what was that but evil? Or the Inquisition? Or the witch craze? The simple message of a Deity who loves all, and commands humans to care more, share more, and love more deeply, has never truly been followed by more than a handful.

Ullrich Mueller
Ullrich Mueller2 years ago

Shows the very core of all religions: we are better than you as we have the right belief (If yours differs, it cannot be the right one for obvious reasons) and if you don't fit into my scheme you will be ostracized.

Dt Nc
Dt Nc2 years ago


Barbara S.
Barbara S.2 years ago

Why does this shock anyone? There has never been a War on Christians. Christians, however, (the ones who are so in name only so they can say and do whatever they think God tells them to say or do) have always been at war with all of us who do not follow their particular doctrine. Oh, sure... they will hold hands and pray at inter-faith conferences because it benefits them, and they thump their Bibles "to protect Israel." But they never accept Constitutional Law or American values to be equal to or more important than their own church's beliefs. If we don't believe exactly as their sect does, there is a problem with US, never them. And anytime they can find a way to use Man's Laws to circumvent a decent and progressive change in America's Values, so they can maintain their own discriminatory practices in-line with their sect's interpretation of "The Bible," they will. They like being able to say they're better because of the ways they believe. It makes them feel powerful. And now some of them feel so powerful, they are considering having their people get licensed to conceal-carry weapons wherever they go... Now there's a terrible Fate just waiting to be blessed. Watch and see how that works out.