Lancaster Bible College

Good Shepherd Chapel, Lancaster Bible College

Citing religious convictions concerning sexuality, Lancaster Bible College is seeking exemption from a federal law banning discrimination in education, documents released by the U.S. Department of Education show.

Complying fully with Title IX would “curtail the College’s freedom to respond to gender dysphoria and homosexual behavior,” college President Peter Teague said in a letter to the department’s Office of Civil Rights.

The request, sent last summer, remains pending, the department said Monday.

Teague’s letter puts the college among the growing number of conservative Christian (including Catholic) educational institutions seeking such exemptions.

They give administrations greater leeway to set policies on dormitories, restrooms, athletics and so on. For example, at conservative schools, gay students may face sanctions for having same-sex relationships, or transgender students may be denied access to housing or restrooms of the gender with which they identify.

Lancaster Bible College’s exemption, if granted, would supplement a narrower one it received in 1992. College spokesman John Zeswitz said the college continues to explore options for Title IX relief “given the existing exemption,” but declined to comment further.

While federal regulations permit such exemptions for schools controlled by a religious organization, activists say it gives colleges the right to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

“We believe that religious liberty is a bedrock principle of our nation,” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a statement, “however, faith should never be used as a guise for discrimination.”

The exemptions are not available to secular schools. Last week the Justice Department told the University of North Carolina it is violating Title IX by enforcing its state’s new law barring transgender students from using the restroom associated with their gender identity.

A rising trend

Nationwide, more than 70 institutions have sought Title IX exemptions since 2009, according to a report the campaign released in December.

At least 33 have received an exemption to Title IX related to gender identity, and 23 have received an exemption related to sexual orientation.

The list includes one Pennsylvania school besides Lancaster Bible College: Geneva College, north of Pittsburgh, Affiliated with the Reformed Presbyterian denomination, its request was granted in October.

Groups such as Human Rights Campaign pressured the Education Department to release the exemption applications and its rulings, saying the institutions rarely publicize the exemptions, and students need to be aware of them.

“We commend the Department of Education for answering our call for greater transparency and helping to ensure no student unknowingly enrolls in a school that intends to discriminate against them,” Griffin said.

‘One man and one woman’

Lancaster Bible College’s 1992 exemption grants it freedom from three sections of Title IX related to pre-employment inquiries and to “marital and parental status” of students and employees.

At that time, the college said it “generally opposes gender discrimination” but “seeks to maintain its religious freedom to make certain gender distinctions in matters of moral behavior, marriage and residential living environments and standards.”

In its 2015 request, the college cites its policy on gender identity and sexual orientation, which says that biological sexuality is divinely ordained.

That policy underwrites the college’s lifestyle standards, which say, in part, that “marriage is the union between one man and one woman” and that “any sexual expressions outside of that realm (sex before marriage, homosexuality, adultery, fornication, etc.) are immoral and against God’s design.”

All faculty and staff must sign onto the standards and the college’s Statement of Faith.

Human sexuality and gender are “core to religious teaching” and people and institutions “deserve space to live according to those religious beliefs,” said Randall Wenger, chief counsel to the Independence Law Center in Harrisburg and on Conestoga Wood Sepcialties’ legal team in its fight against the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

Otherwise, Wenger said, “you have government forcing people to violate their own religious teaching. If that happens, I think we all lose.”

Lancaster Bible College has the right to seek a religious exemption, said Louie Marven, executive director of The LGBT Center of Central PA in Harrisburg, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. “The people who end up hurt are LGBT students.”

Statistically, there are bound to be such students at the college, he said. As young people, they’re still learning about themselves and forming their identity. Treating their sexual orientation as a sin is counterproductive and puts them at risk, he said.

They need affirmation and support, offered in a way “that honors that LGBT people are part of our community,” he said.