This summer, Union was one of 102 Christian colleges and universities included on LGBTQ advocacy group Campus Pride’s “Shame List.”
According to the organization’s website, Union was included because it received a Title IX exemption. Many schools with similar exemptions were included on the list. President Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver says there’s more to the story, but under no circumstances do the exemptions represent prejudice, hate, or bigotry toward any prospective or current students.
“Union’s not a place that’s going to endorse anything and everything,” he said. “But I do hope we’re a place that, whatever the situation, whether you’re same sex attracted or addicted to pornography, or if you’re in a sexual relationship outside of marriage, I hope that what people would say is that people walked with me, lovingly and faithfully.”
So what are Title IX exemptions, and why have they attracted national attention and even condemnation from LGBTQ groups like Campus Pride?
Title IX Background
President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law on June 23, 1972 as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, according to the Justice Department’s website. The text of the law states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
In the years since its passing, Title IX has been used to ensure girls and boys have equal opportunities in all athletic and educational programs that are partially funded by the government.
According to Ann Singleton, Union’s Title IX Coordinator, its primary purpose is to provide a safeguard so that federal money protects against and doesn’t participate in sex discrimination.
From its inception, the law included a way for schools and programs to apply for exemptions for a variety of reasons. Girl and Boy Scouts, for example, were exempt from having to include members of the opposite sex.
The law also allowed for exemptions on the basis of religious liberty. According to an overview of Title IX regulations authored by the Justice Department, “Title IX exempts from coverage any educational operation of an entity that is controlled by a religious organization only to the extent that Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”
Union’s need for exemptions
A major change to Title IX came in April of 2014 when the Department of Education expanded the definition of ‘sex’ to include individuals involved in same sex marriage and transgender individuals.
This change trickled down into all Title IX provisions. It meant that schools receiving financial aid from the government could now be asked to recognize same-sex marriages, something that directly contradicts Union’s religious tenets. Oliver said the decision to apply for an exemption stemmed from a desire to be clear about what Union believes.
“We wanted to say, ‘Hey, we want to offer married student housing because we want to support students who are married, but here’s what we believe about marriage. It’s between one man and one woman, for a lifetime,’” Oliver said. “That was the point of asking for the exemption, to be clear about who we are and what we believe, and to protect the mission of the institution moving forward.”
Union received the exemption in March of 2015, and it allowed the University to consider sexual orientation, gender identity and marital status, among other things, when considering a prospective student for admissions. It was not the first exemption the school had received; previous ones include an exemption so that residence buildings could be separated by gender.
The 2015 exemption also allowed Union to restrict married housing to heterosexual couples and restrict assignment of housing, restrooms and locker rooms to a person’s birth sex, according to the official response letter written by Catherine Lhaman, assistant secretary for civil rights for the U.S. department of Education.
Additionally, it allowed Union to hold students to codes of conduct and behavior regarding sexual orientation, gender identity, sex outside of marriage, pregnancy and abortion. Oliver said the university wanted to be clear that they were not singling out any single demographic of campus, but rather protecting Union’s right to advocate for a biblical sexual ethic and lifestyle across the board for all students.
Andrew Walker, director of Policy Studies for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he thought the university’s decision was both wise and necessary.
“If Union University is going to be a Christian institution, under the Constitution, it has the right to take every legal measure to protect its religious identity. Title IX exemptions are, sadly, a necessary component to Christian higher education because the government has adopted mistaken views on human nature that not only conflict with a Christian worldview, but the witness of history and natural law,” he said.
What Exemptions Don’t Mean
Title IX exemptions do not mean that the school or program that receives them is not responsible for any of Title IX. Every part of the law that does not directly conflict with the institution’s religious convictions is still in effect.
Because Union’s exemption covers a wide range, including sex outside of marriage, pregnancy and abortion, reading them without context or further conversation can lead students to think they have lost protections they depend on, which is not the case.
Amy Knack, junior Spanish and TESL major, said she saw through social media over the summer that misunderstandings were fostering confusion among some students.
“A student I know had shared a post about the exemption from a Union grad and tagged Dub and Union as well,” she said. “What I saw in that post and in the comments was a lot of anger, fear and confusion. It seemed to me that most people didn’t understand what Title IX is or where it comes from.”
Recently, she organized an event with Singleton and Brian Carrier, dean of students, to help everyone understand the scope of the exemption more clearly.
Singleton said the text of the exemption reads broadly because, while Union was requesting specific provisions, the Department of Education only grants exemptions using the broader categories.
Union is still responsible to ensure there are established procedures for dealing with sexual harassment complaints and that men and women have equal educational and athletic opportunities.
“Any opportunities that are available for any students are available for all students, likewise for employees,” Singleton said. “Additionally, if a student or employee feels they are being discriminated against, the university has a process to address the complaint.”
Guidelines for that process can be found on the student accountability section of Union’s website. There is also a Title IX resource page on the Student Life section of Union’s website. Additionally, all full-time faculty and staff and many students received online Title IX training last year. A Title IX consultant is coming to campus this semester to further equip faculty and students to navigate Title IX issues, according to Singleton.
Oliver said that Union’s practices and policies haven’t changed, but the federal government has, and the exemptions will allow the school to remain faithful to its core beliefs no matter what regulations change in the future.
For example, the U.S. Department of Education addressed a letter to all schools that receive federal funding in May of 2016 advising them to allow students to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity, according to a New York Times article. The letter is not law, but schools that don’t abide by it could face lawsuits or be cut off from federal funding unless they have Title IX exemptions like Union’s.
Union’s choice meant that it joined a growing list of Christian schools drawing a line of demarcation in the growing debate about the intersection of religious liberty and federal regulations. Campus Pride called the exemptions “discrimination and hate filled bigotry,” and reached out to the NCAA to divest from institutions on their “shame list.”
The NCAA has made no move to do so, though it did withdraw championships from North Carolina because of the state’s LGBTQ laws and policies. Oliver said he thinks in the future, pressure on institutions like Union will continue to increase, but Christians need to stand firm.
Walker said “the future looks bleak” and that it is likely legislative pushes to force institutions like Union to conform or lose their tax exempt status and accreditation will come in the future. He also said it is important that Christian students understand these issues so they are prepared to respond to an increasingly hostile society.
“One of the truly amazing features of progressives at the moment is the total willingness to depict 2,000 years of orthodox Christian teaching as bigoted and discriminatory. It is not discriminatory to believe that men and women are made for one another exclusively; and that men and women can’t become a member of the opposite sex simply because they ‘identify’ as male or female,” he said.