The U.S. Department of Justice said in a court filing that it intends to defend an exemption for religious schools and universities from an anti-discrimination federal law.
The filing (pdf) comes in response to a class action lawsuit brought against the U.S. Department of Education by a coalition of current and former students from over 20 colleges associated with evangelical Christianity and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The students, identifying as “LGBTQ+,” alleged that they experienced discrimination at those schools because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), an LGBTQ advocacy group, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the students in March in an Oregon federal court. The suit seeks to challenge the application of Title IX, which outlaws sex-based discrimination in institutions that accept federal funding except those “controlled by a religious organization.”
Three Christian universities, along with the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, have petitioned to intervene in the case under the presumption that the Biden administration would not defend their Title IX religious exemptions. The Justice Department, however, declared in the June 9 court filing that its interests “coincide” with those of the Christian institutions, and that it “will represent those interests adequately.”
“At this stage of the litigation, it is premature to conclude that the Federal Defendants would neglect to raise, or be ‘ill-equipped’ to develop, effective arguments in support of the Religious Exemption,” the department said in the filing, obtained and reported by The Washington Post.
The Christian institutions and the Justice Department share the same “ultimate objective,” which is to defend the religious exemption and its current application, the filing stated, urging the court to not grant the request for intervention.
The filing also affirmed that just because the Education Department is undertaking a “comprehensive review” of Title IX regulations, it doesn’t mean the Justice Department will not perform its duty to uphold existing legal statutes, including the religious exemption.
“Neither the Administration’s stated policy positions nor the [Education] Department’s review of existing regulations abrogate the government’s duty to defend federal statutes and regulations in court as a legal matter,” the Justice Department stated.
Paul Southwick, the director of REAP, told The Washington Post that his organization was disappointed by the move, saying that the Biden administration has “chosen to align itself with anti-LGBTQ extremist groups.”
“What this means is that the government is now aligning itself with anti-LGBTQ hate in order to vigorously defend an exemption that everyone knows causes severe harm to LGBTQ students using taxpayer money,” Southwick said. “It will make our case harder if the federal government plans to vigorously defend it like they have indicated.”
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the legal group representing the Christian universities in their petition, warned that depending on the outcome of the lawsuit, schools could lose their federal funding for “operating according to Christian beliefs on sexuality.”
“Religious schools would face the impossible choice of losing students who would be denied needed federal financial assistance or abandoning their beliefs,” the ADF said on its website. “And it would slam the door of opportunity in the face of students who want to pursue higher education at colleges and universities that share their faith.”