LGBTQ+ students sue for religious exceptions under Title IX

Rev. Kalie Hargrove didn’t realize she was transgender until about a decade after she began teaching at Lincoln Christian University in Illinois. When she began her transition in 2020, she was a distance student on her second stint at university, and while she didn’t willingly reveal her gender identity to school officials, she didn’t hide it either.

In fact, last June Hargrove wrote an essay for an online publication about her identity as a trans woman and as a Christian. Somehow — she’s still not sure how — officials at Lincoln Christian University found out about the essay two months later and gave her two options, she said: withdraw from class or face disciplinary action.

Publicly identifying as trans violates the school’s code of conduct, Hargrove said, her officer said.

“It’s so dehumanizing for them to just look at a part of me and say, ‘No, you don’t belong here,'” said Hargrove, an ordained minister who is studying to become an Old Testament professor. “They’re basically saying they just don’t want me to exist in the same world as them.”

Ultimately, Hargrove decided to retire from teaching. She worried that if she didn’t do it quickly, she would miss the window when her tuition could be refunded, she said. But the 34-year-old didn’t walk away quietly.

An advocacy group filed a Title IX complaint against Lincoln Christian University in October on Hargrove’s behalf. Last month, the The Ministry of Education said it would investigate whether the university has violated Title IX, a state civil rights law that prohibits schools that receive state funds from discriminating on the basis of sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

There is a loophole: Religion-based schools have long been able to obtain religious exemptions from Title IX by submitting a written statement to the Department of Education stating which provisions of the law contradict their religious beliefs. Then, in 2020, the Trump administration expanded the eligibility to include institutions that have not requested formal exemptions in the face of Title IX complaints. Though Lincoln Christian University never made a formal request for a religious exemption, Hargrove’s attorneys said the school can still invoke the rule after the fact.

That’s why Hargrove isn’t stopping the civil rights lawsuit against the school. She joined a class action lawsuit filed against the Department of Education in March challenging the constitutionality of the Title IX religious exemption. The lawsuit is being led by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), the same group that filed Hargrove’s Title IX complaint. It said more than 200 colleges and universities that receive federal funding have been granted religious exemptions that allow them to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students. It is not uncommon for these institutions to receive government grants and subsidized loans to help pay for expenses such as campus construction and repairs. Over 40 students are plaintiffs in the class action.

“We contend that the exception as applied to LGBTQ students violates the constitutional right to equal protection of students to be free from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity while participating in federally funded educational programs be,” said Joe Baxter, a REAP attorney. “We also contend that the notification requirements of regulations changed during the Trump administration are unconstitutional because they also interfere with our students’ rights to notification, due process and equal protection.”

The Department of Education did not respond to The 19th’s requests for comment on the lawsuit and the civil rights complaint. Lincoln Christian University released a statement on its website on Jan. 26 confirming that it is the subject of a Title IX investigation by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. “We are responding to the OCR and have no further comment at this time,” the statement said.

Hargrove had two stints at Lincoln Christian University. After first enrolling in 2009, she dropped out of school after a year and a half to support her family financially and served in the Air Force for nine years. Determined to finish her master’s degree in theology, she returned to Lincoln in 2019, her tuition covered by the Montgomery GI bill.

“I didn’t realize I was trans until I was already re-accepted and re-enrolled in school and started classes,” she said. “I was at a distance and didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know if I was going to switch or something. So I went on to go to school there. Then, in late spring of 2020, I decided to actually start transitioning and taking hormones, but I still wasn’t in school.”

Hargrove figured that even if she got out, Lincoln wouldn’t oust her for Title IX. Baxter said many students are unaware that religious schools can cite exceptions to Title IX to protect against allegations of bias. Most schools don’t advertise these exceptions, he added, and students typically don’t understand their implications.

“Then, in hindsight, they feel completely taken aback by their government and a little betrayed because they have no protection — especially students like Kalie who spent nine years in the US military,” he said. “She has put her life on the line for her country and to be abandoned by her school without protection, career and future income is at stake and it is truly humiliating and humiliating to be so abandoned by your government to become.”

About 12 percent of students at taxpayer-funded Christian colleges identify as LGBTQ+, according to a 2021 REAP report. Members of the LGBTQ+ community end up in religious institutions for a number of reasons, Baxter said. Many did not realize their gender identity or sexual orientation until after they enrolled in these facilities. Others received financial help from these schools or come from religious families who would only pay for religious schools. And some just live near these colleges and universities, making them convenient places to study. In any case, once they enroll in these institutions, it can be difficult to leave, depending on their financial situation or how close they are to graduation, Baxter said.

But it’s almost impossible to stay in these colleges and universities without being locked down, said Hargrove, who is now a distance student at United Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. That school incredibly affirmed her gender identity, Hargrove said, but leaving Lincoln means she will graduate about a year later than planned because not all of her credits transferred from Lincoln. More than the delay in graduation, Hargrove is saddened that leaving Lincoln means in many ways she will be alienated from her religious tradition.

“Lincoln is part of the Independent Christian Church,” she said. “It’s the tradition I grew up in. I went to an Independent Christian Church Bible school for my undergraduate studies and did my bachelor’s degree through the same tradition. I originally went to Lincoln because it was my tradition and I returned there because it was my tradition. I didn’t just get expelled from school. I was kicked out of my tradition.”

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