This past year, Covenant College, among dozens of religious institutions across the nation, received a waiver recognizing the school’s exemption from Title IX policy— a gender and now transgender equality bill for federally funded institutions. The flurry of requested waivers follows the Department of Education (DOE)’s expansion of the bill to include non-conforming and LGBT individuals under its umbrella. This decision was made in April 2014.
The exemption is provided in Title IX for religious institutions whose beliefs contradict any of its tenants. In particular, it protects these institutions from law-suits based on gender or LGBT discrimination.
Specific Title IX exemptions differ for each institution. Some request exemption from anti-discriminatory laws for admissions and employment; others petition against transgender use of gender-specific housing and restroom facilities.
Covenant College filed for the exemption waiver last May after the decision was finalized by the Board of Trustees in late March 2015. Dean of Students, Brad Voyles drafted the application letter after the administration, various faculty members, and national Christian advocacy group, Alliance Defending Freedom, provided feedback on the request. DOE approved Covenant’s waiver in July, and the decision has since been met with mounting criticism from some alumni and LGBT rights activists.
Covenant is now included on Campus Pride’s “Shame List” with 59 other religious institutions that filed for the exemption.
According to President Derek Halvorson, nothing about the school’s policy or views towards the enrollment or conduct of LGBT student has changed with the approved waiver.
“The exemption isn’t intended to govern on campus policy or practice,” he says. “It’s just an in-the-background legal protection for religious institutions.”
In accordance with the beliefs of the PCA, Pres. Halvorson says that “sexual activity outside of the bounds of marriage is sinful and so, we ask folks that are going to be a part of this community to refrain from sexual activity, heterosexual or homosexual. That hasn’t changed at all. We don’t screen people for orientation or attraction. We don’t believe it is necessarily sinful for someone to experience same sex attraction. However, we do believe sexual activity is to be restricted to heterosexual marriage.”
Many religious schools have decided to file for the waiver after Jaycen, a transgender student of Quaker-affiliated George Fox University, requested to live in men’s housing as an anatomical female. The school offered Jaycen single-person housing, but denied the student’s request. The school was one of the first to file for an LGBT exemption after receiving threats from Jaycen’s lawyer.
Halvorson expressed his concern that a similar scenario could occur at Covenant and hoped that the exemption allows the school to approach strongly-identifying LGBT students on “a case by case basis.”
“It depends on the conversations that we have with that individual student,” he says. “One of the good things about being a small institution is that we have the bandwidth then to have those type of relational conversations instead of just a blanket ‘we always do this and we always do that.’”
Director of Admissions, Scott Schindler, states that “anyone who is willfully and unrepentantly engaged in sinful acts would not be admitted. People who are tempted to engage in sinful acts —and sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage between a man and a woman would be one example of such an act— are admitted with the understanding that they will seek to resist temptation and live in accordance with biblical standards.”
“No one is denied admission on the basis of orientation,” says Schindler.
Voyles also states that “we will continue to admit students who identify as same-sex attracted as well as those who have transgender desires. Covenant welcomes and values members of the College community who experience same-sex attraction. At the same time, the College affirms the position of the PCA that sexual activity between members of the same sex is sinful—a belief that is out of accord with certain potential applications of Title IX.”
He says that students with homosexual attraction or transgender desires “should feel safe in talking with members of the community.”
In instances of sexual activity for both heterosexual and homosexual students outside of marriage, Voyles says he will first talk with the student “with the goal of coming to an understanding of what had happened and then working with the student to develop accountability and support going forward.”
In response to repeated sexual activity, Voyles says “the discussion would move to whether Covenant was the best fit.”
Kathryn Brightbill, a 2003 Covenant alumnus, says that when she was a student, “for the most part there was overwhelming silence about anything LGBT-related.”
She believes that with the school’s Title IX exemption, life will become even more difficult for the school’s LGBT population.
“Whatever the intent, the result of the exemption is to ostracize LGBT students and single them out as second class members of the Covenant family,” she says.
She still remembers a debate held in her Self and Society class (a predecessor of today’s Christian Mind course) during which students argued whether LGBT individuals should be stoned in accordance to Old Testament law.
“I don't think there was any awareness that there might actually be LGBT students in the class expected to participate in the discussion,” she says. “At that point in my life I was still convincing myself I was straight, but I still remember feeling uncomfortable and more than a little bit horrified that the question of whether to execute LGBT people was a topic for debate.”
She is also concerned that Covenant students will be unprepared to interact in a society that is becoming much more inclusive of LGBT individuals.
“Realistically speaking, while there may be short term gains from donors and others affiliated with Covenant who approve of the decision to seek the exemption, unless Covenant changes and decides to move away from the discriminatory policies towards LGBT students, the school is going to be increasingly irrelevant,” she says. “We're already seeing employers and graduate school admissions committees questioning whether Christian college alumni will be a good fit because of the reputation that Christian liberal arts colleges are quickly getting for being backwards and discriminatory.”
“I love Covenant and I'm committed to the idea of Christian liberal arts education, but at this point, the school is being its own worst enemy,” Brightbill says.
Halvorson thinks it unlikely that LGBT students will face more discrimination from the campus community with the filing of the exemption and hopes this will not be the case.
“We try to be as supportive as we can be of those folks and be an encouragement to them. We want to be a caring and compassionate place in which they work out the implications of their identity in Christ, which we think is more important than all other identities that we might have,” he says.
The DOE has announced that it will soon post an interactive list of all Title IX exempt schools on its website.