Religious character of a university can provide a rich resource for students

Written by William C. Duncan

February 2, 2023

On Jan. 12, a federal judge in Oregon dismissed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education that had been brought by an organization representing LGBT students who had attended religious schools. The lawsuit was based on Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in education.

When Congress enacted Title IX in 1972, it recognized that some potential applications of the law, such as requiring coed housing, could interfere with the practices of some religious schools, so the law included a religious exemption: “[T]his section shall not apply to an educational institution which is controlled by a religious organization if the application of this subsection would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization.”

The organization bringing the lawsuit objects to this exemption. They charged that school policies based on religious beliefs about marriage and sexuality stigmatized LGBT students. Obviously, private universities do not wield government authority, so constitutional strictures do not govern their actions in all the same ways that they do government agencies. Thus, this lawsuit targeted two Department of Education actions: allowing religious schools to claim the Title IX religious exemption, and allowing exempted schools to receive federal funds (like student loans and research grants).

Specifically, the lawsuit asked the federal court to order that the department cut off federal funding for religious schools, refuse any requested exemptions to the law by religious schools, and revoke current exemptions that have been recognized in the past.

The lawsuit was dismissed, however, because Title IX’s religious exemption “is substantially related to the government’s objective of accommodating religious exercise.” This, the court found, was a valid and important interest that justified the legal rule.

Opposition to the specific religious character of some universities is unfortunate. These universities surely regret that some students or others feel stigmatized by the religious character of the schools or from unkindness shown by others. Those regrettable experiences, though, do not define such schools – nor do they encompass the experience of everyone similar to those that felt stigmatized. In fact, the religious character of a university can provide a particularly rich resource for students of all kinds.

An event held at the American Council for Education in Washington, D.C., last month included a discussion of how some religious universities have had success in addressing a significant problem in American higher education: the failure of many students to complete their degrees. One example:

Peter Kilpatrick, president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said that students who don’t engage in any of the university’s campus ministries graduate about seven or eight percentage points below average.

“Students who engage in five or more of our campus activities graduate or persist at a rate 15 points higher,” he said, “and 92% of our students persist if they get engaged (in ministry).”

Religious schools may actually have an advantage in creating a feeling of belonging, because shared religious commitment – even when personal religious affiliation varies – provides an initial unifying factor for a student body and even extends to faculty and staff.

People of faith sometimes struggle to respond to charges that acting on their beliefs is unfair discrimination. As the American Council on Education event made clear, the differences that set apart people of faith and religious organizations are often the source of great strengths and of contributions to society. That does not mean that everyone has to agree with – or even understand – the beliefs and practices of the schools, only be open to the unique contributions they may make.

Eboo Patel, president of Interfaith America, was a keynote speaker at the event. He summarized well the messages of these schools: “The secular world might not understand all of what we believe and every reason we do what we do, but can’t you see the results? The least you can do is affirm that our religious identity is an asset. It is what drives our commitment and results in our excellence.”

Recognition of this reality is the difference between a culture of continued and unnecessary conflict and one of respectful pluralism.

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