Oregon attorney general leads call to end Trump exemptions for religious schools

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and 18 other state attorney generals are seeking to eliminate Trump-era measures that relaxed anti-discrimination rules for religious schools.

Three Oregon students are among the plaintiffs and one private university in Salem is intervening to defend the Trump rules. 

The attorney generals filed a brief in the U.S. District Court in Eugene Tuesday, writing that two rule changes to the federal Title IX act that were enacted in August and November of 2020 were not in line with the intent of the federal law to prevent discrimination at schools. 

Title IX is the federal law that protects people from sex-based discrimination in schools that receive federal funding or financial assistance. There are some exemptions for religious schools, where many students receive federal financial aid, but the attorney generals said the two rules enacted by the U.S. Department of Education under former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stray too far. 

The first rule, enacted in August 2020, allowed religious institutions to exempt themselves from Title IX without written notification to the federal Office of Civil Rights. This effectively let religious schools claim exemption to the federal anti-discrimination laws at will and without record, according to the brief. 

The second rule, enacted last November, gave schools more leeway to claim they were controlled by a religious organization in order to exempt themselves from parts of the anti-discrimination laws. 

In the brief, the attorney generals wrote, “In combination, the rules harm students and make it more difficult to hold schools accountable for that harm.”

The brief that the attorney generals filed Tuesday is called an amicus brief, and it serves as an intervention in a larger class action case called Hunter V. Department of Education. 

In that case, 33 plaintiffs who attended evangelical colleges are suing the Department of Education for violating Title IX by allowing their schools to discriminate against them on the basis of sex. The plaintiffs want the religious exemptions to Title IX declared unconstitutional. That case was filed in the U.S. District Court in Eugene in March. The new amicus brief from the attorney generals is an effort to influence the court’s decision to side with the plaintiffs. 

Among those suing the U.S. Department of Education are two are current or former students of George Fox University, a private Christian college in Newberg that had about 2,500 undergraduate students in 2020. 

The school applied for a religious exemption from Title IX so they would not be denied access to federal student financial aid while they barred one of the plaintiffs, a transgender man, from living in a men’s dormitory.  

In their complaint, the 33 plaintiffs describe being bullied and harassed by peers and administrators for sharing their sexuality, and being forced into conversion therapy in order to remain enrolled or to receive class credits. 

Both the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association strongly oppose conversion therapy and it is illegal for minors in Oregon and 19 other states plus the District of Columbia.

Three religious universities have intervened to support the Department of Education in the case and to uphold the religious exemptions including one in Oregon. 

Corban University, a private Christian school in Salem is being represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative advocacy group. Corban is not named in the federal lawsuit, but in a press release from the Alliance Defending Freedom, they said that the school wants to intervene because it would be affected if the plaintiffs won.

David Cortman, senior counsel for the advocacy group, said in a statement that, “This lawsuit wants the federal government to tell Christian schools, ‘To continue accepting students who have federal financial aid, all you have to do is to start acting contrary to your own beliefs.’ That’s neither reasonable nor constitutional.”

Corban was founded as the Phoenix Bible Institute in Arizona in 1953 before being moved to Oakland, California and then to Oregon in 1969 where it was called Western Baptist College. The school was officially named Corban University in 2005. 

Corban had an undergraduate enrollment of about 900 students in the 2019-20 school year. In its bylaws, Corban requires faculty, employees and students to comply with a standard of conduct that prohibits homosexuality.

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