LGBTQ+ Students At Religious Schools Are Suing Over Discrimination

This spring, with Rosenfeld’s help, LGBTQ+ students at Yeshiva have filed a suit against the university, alleging it has violated New York City Human Rights Law by refusing to recognize the Pride Alliance. The university contends that the suit amounts to “government interference” in how “religious values are applied on campus,” a Yeshiva spokesperson writes to Teen Vogue.

More than 1,600 miles away in Texas, a similar story is unfolding on Baylor University’s campus. The school’s administration had for a decade consistently rejected petitions for formal recognition to Gamma Alpha Upsilon, an LGBTQ+ campus group, so named because the Greek letters spell gay. But last October, the Baylor student senate passed a resolution, co-authored by then-sophomore Veronica Penales, paving the way for the club to gain official status — and thousands of students, alumni, faculty and others associated with the school rallied in support of it.

In May, Baylor’s board announced they would explore “the possibility” of sanctioning an LGBTQ+ centered club. While Penales is “encouraged” by the move, she stresses to Teen Vogue that Baylor has yet to “walk the walk,” i.e., to officially recognize Gamma Alpha Upsilon.

“We’re just a bunch of LGBTQ students who just want to officially have a room that we can call ours,” Penales says, “to just hang out with each other, play games, do what every other club does.”

Meanwhile, at Yeshiva, Rosenfeld feels hopeful that queer students will have a formal club by this fall. Legal questions presented by Hunter v. Department of Education and the Yeshiva suit are distinct, but Rosenfeld notes that, fundamentally, “they are both about discrimination against LGBTQ students at religious institutions.”

Those who see themselves on the side of religious freedom argue that potential harm to LGBTQ+ students can be prevented by the transparency of religious colleges, presumably helping queer students choose colleges whose values align with theirs. “The campuses are up front,” Hoogstra says, referring to the stated theological beliefs at CCCU colleges. “Campuses are generally transparent about their policies and behavioral guidelines, which students voluntarily agree to when they choose to attend the institution.”

Jamie Lord, one of the plaintiffs in Southwick’s suit, says she had a different experience. Prior to enrolling at Regent University School of Law, a CCCU member institution, she says she disclosed that she was a lesbian and was assured that her sexual orientation would not be an issue. Looking back, Lord feels she was misled.

“A teacher told me I would go to hell for being a lesbian, and that if I prayed hard enough, God would save me from my sinful ways,” reads the first sentence of the Title IX complaint she eventually filed — and which, she says, has yet to be acknowledged by the school. (A spokesperson for Regent declined to comment on Lord’s claims, citing federal privacy laws.)

According to the complaint, professors at the Virginia law school called LGBTQ+ people “pedophiles” and “child molesters.” 

A spokesperson for Regent says in a statement that all students are “required to sign a document agreeing to fully accept the university’s Stand of Personal Conduct” upon enrolling. The handbook expressly prohibits “sexual misconduct,” which includes “homosexual conduct” alongside pornography, premarital sex, and adultery. Now, after Lord got engaged to her girlfriend in June, she finds herself on the cusp of explicitly violating the rules — and risking expulsion.

Many closely following the federal judiciary are skeptical that the students’ suit will succeed. Tebbe, the Cornell law professor, says that in recent years, whenever there has been a conflict between LGBTQ+ rights and religious freedom before the Supreme Court, “the religious interest have prevailed.”

But despite seemingly long odds in court, the student plaintiffs feel hopeful simply by having joined the suit. After the case went public with her as the lead plaintiff, Hunter says, students and alumni reached out to her, including those she says had once been expelled for their sexual orientations.

“I went out to a local gay-owned hostel,” Hunter recalls, “and there were a bunch of current students at the hostel who connected with me. It was so encouraging — they’re watching the case because they want the same rights as everyone. It was very hopeful for them to see someone who stood up.”

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