Many Christian Colleges and Universities Discriminate Against LGBTQ Students—and Government Policies Allow Them to Do So
The U.S. federal government currently exempts Christian colleges and universities from Title IX policies that would otherwise require them to practice nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Although PRRI has not conducted polling specifically on Christian colleges and universities’ hiring and admissions policies, PRRI data shows that 82% of Americans favor laws protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing. At the same time, over one-third of Americans support religiously based refusals to serve LGBTQ people, suggesting that there is a higher tolerance for such policies when religion is involved.
Despite the Biden-Harris administration’s rhetorical support for LGBTQ rights and recent executive orders furthering protections for LGBTQ people in the United States, the administration has signaled that it intends to support the policies of earlier presidential administrations (including that of Trump-Pence) and thus continue to allow Christian colleges and universities to discriminate against LGBTQ people. For example, in its initial response to a recent class-action lawsuit challenging the government’s Title IX exemption policies, the Department of Justice announced that it would “vigorously” defend the right of Christian colleges and universities to discriminate, adding that it “shares the same ultimate objective” as Christian colleges and universities that currently discriminate.
Yet there are signs that the Biden-Harris administration may be softening its support for Title IX exemption policies that allow Christian colleges and universities to continue to receive government funds (including federal student loan money) despite their discriminatory policies toward LGBTQ people. In January, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced that it would launch Title IX investigations against two Christian universities—Lincoln Christian University and Clarks Summit University—that discriminate against LGBTQ people. Previously, the Department of Education had not taken up such Title IX complaints against Christian colleges and universities.
What is at stake in policy debates over the ability of Christian schools to discriminate against LGBTQ students? Specifically, how widespread is discrimination against LGBTQ students at Christian colleges and universities, and how do discriminatory policies affect LGBTQ students themselves?
Policies on LGBTQ Students at Christian Colleges and Universities
Studies suggest that discrimination against LGBTQ students at Christian colleges and universities—a broad category of schools that includes nearly 700 four-year, not-for-profit Protestant, Catholic, and Latter-day Saints institutions—is indeed common. In a 2018 study, for example, I found that nearly one-third (31%) of Christian colleges and universities maintain bans on “homosexual acts” or “homosexual behavior” in their student handbooks. Typically, these bans are listed alongside prohibitions against rape and incest, and they put LGBTQ students at risk of suspension or expulsion.
Bans on “homosexual acts” or “homosexual behavior” are just one form of discrimination against LGBTQ students at Christian colleges and universities. For example, several colleagues and I recently collected data showing that most Christian colleges and universities do not have gender-neutral housing policies that would allow transgender students to share a room with someone who shares their gender identity. Christian colleges and universities may also deny transgender students the ability to access the restroom of their choice.
To be clear, not all Christian colleges and universities maintain formal discriminatory policies toward LGBTQ students. In a 2017 study, I found that 55% of Christian colleges and universities protect students from nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, 45% of Christian colleges and universities are home to LGBTQ student groups, and 10% of Christian colleges and universities include “gender identity” or “gender expression” in their nondiscrimination policies. Yet few Christian colleges and universities that opposed pro-LGBTQ policies prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage have become friendlier toward LGBTQ students over the past several years, suggesting that some Christian colleges and universities are remaining steadfast in their opposition to LGBTQ rights.
Impacts of Discriminatory Policies at Christian Colleges and Universities
Christian colleges and universities’ discriminatory policies toward LGBTQ students have harmful effects on LGBTQ students themselves. One recent study analyzed narratives by over 200 LGBTQ students at Christian colleges and universities showing that LGBTQ students feared negative repercussions should they be outed at their schools. LGBTQ students also experienced isolation on their campuses, expressed difficulty in reconciling their faith and LGBTQ identity, and reported experiencing suicidal ideation.
Another study using quantitative survey data from sexual minority students attending non-affirming religious colleges and universities found that over one-third of those surveyed had been bullied or harassed in school, and nearly one in five students had interactions with gay conversion therapists. People who underwent gay conversion therapy are, in turn, at higher risk of depression and suicidal ideation.
Far from being abstract policy debates, then, debates over religious schools’ ability to discriminate against LGBTQ students have major implications for the ongoing health, wellbeing, and safety of LGBTQ students at Christian colleges and universities.
Jonathan S. Coley is a member of the 2021-2022 cohort of PRRI Public Fellows.