The Right to Expel

July 25, 2014

When word spread this month that George Fox University had received an exemption to Title IX, allowing it to discriminate against a transgender student by denying him the housing he requested, many advocates for transgender students were stunned. Federal regulations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 do in fact require the Education Department to exempt colleges from rules that violate their religious beliefs. During the debate, George Fox officials noted that they were objecting to a housing request only, and that they haven't kicked the student out of the university.

But now the Education Department has confirmed that it has since awarded two more exemptions to Title IX to Christian colleges that want to discriminate against transgender students. These colleges assert (and the Education Department agreed) that they should be exempt from more of Title IX than just housing equity. These colleges have policies to punish transgender students for being transgender students, apparently up to expulsion -- and they can now do so legally. The two institutions are Spring Arbor University, in Michigan, and Simpson University, in California.

Spring Arbor is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church and its traditions. It requested exemption from Title IX with regard to issues of admissions, behavioral rules, housing, access to restrooms, athletic participation and more.

The university's student handbook says: "Spring Arbor University reserves the right to terminate or deny enrollment of those whose influence upon our community should prove to be in our judgment intractably contrary to the best interests of our students, and commitments to our university and to our Lord. Therefore, Spring Arbor University will not support persistent or conspicuous examples of cross-dressing or other expressions or actions that are deliberately discordant with birth gender, and will deal with such matters within the appropriate pastoral and conduct processes of the university."

The university also sought and received permission to enforce rules against gay students. In the letter to the Education Department requesting an exemption, the university wrote: "The university has deeply held religious beliefs, based upon Biblical principles and the Book of Discipline, which do not allow for any sexuality, other than heterosexuality. The university also believes, based upon Biblical principles, that a person cannot change their birth gender." The university also stated that these rules apply to hiring as well.

While there are no public complaints against Spring Arbor related to its treatment of transgender people, the issue has come up previously. In 2007, the university settled a complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by a former dean who had been demoted and restricted to online instruction after her transition. Terms of that settlement were not released.

Simpson University made a similar case for its exemption to Title IX. Its request -- approved by the Education Department -- cited its affiliation with the Christian and Missionary Alliance to say that it must discriminate against both gay people and transgender people. "[S]exual practices that are divorced from loving, covenental relationships between men and women pervert God's intentions and result in sinful behavior that ruptures relationships between men and women, and erodes the relationship between human beings and their creator." The letter goes on to say that "any individual who violates campus standard for biblical living is subject to discipline, including expulsion."

Education Department officials have said that they have no choice but to grant exemptions that are based on colleges' religious beliefs. The colleges' policies are not new, but the Education Department only recently determined that Title IX protects transgender students.

Simpson officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Malachi Crane, a spokesman for Spring Arbor, via email praised the exemption the university received. "We are grateful to live in a nation where we as a Christ-centered university may shape our institution in accordance with our convictions and commitments," he said.

Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, which advocates on behalf of gay, lesbian and transgender students, said he found it "extremely problematic" for colleges that receive federal funds to be receiving exemptions that will allow them to punish transgender and gay students for simply being who they are. He said that these colleges are "dinosaurs of bigotry" and that the real issue was not the exemptions, but the colleges' policies. "Just because you have the right to do something doesn't make it right," he said.

Windmeyer said that many studies have found that gay and transgender students -- particularly those who fear they may be punished for their sexual orientation or gender identity and are thus unable to seek support -- have higher than average rates of depression and suicide. And he noted that there are many gay and transgender Christians, some of whom end up enrolling at these colleges. "These policies are harmful to students," he said.

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