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Hobby Lobby Goes to College: School Uses Religious Exemption to Discriminate Against Transgender Student

A transgender student at George Fox University says he can't get the dorm he wants as the college has an exemption to federal education law.
July 16, 2014, 7:00pm
Photo via George Fox University

Jayce M., a male transgender student at Oregon’s George Fox University, wanted to live in an on-campus apartment with some male friends. So they filled out the usual housing forms for the upcoming fall semester.

But Jayce was denied. For two years until this spring, Jayce had lived in the female-only dorms at this Quaker and Evangelical Christian-affiliated college in Newberg, just outside Portland. The school has a strict single-sex housing policy. But Jayce had been undergoing a gender transition, including hormone therapy, and is now medically and legally male.

Jayce filed a Title IX discrimination complaint with the Department of Education, legislation that in April extended protection from discrimination “based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.”

Title IX is a 1972 amendment to education law that states: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."

Whether it is right or wrong, George Fox was entirely within its legal rights to claim an exemption from federal anti-discrimination law.

Although usually credited with increasing funding to, and expanding, girls' and women's sports in schools and colleges, Title IX is also frequently referenced as a protection against sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools regardless of gender.

But George Fox University applied for an exemption from Title IX, and it was granted in May. Like in the recent Hobby Lobby case at the Supreme Court, it’s a surprise to many that schools can claim religious belief and opposition to a federal law. Especially when those schools, like George Fox and most other colleges, also receive federal funding.

Yet whether it is right or wrong, George Fox was entirely within its legal rights to claim an exemption from federal anti-discrimination law.

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US Department of Education press secretary Dorie Nolt told VICE News that the agency “enforces Title IX's prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of sex, including gender identity, in any education program or activity operated by a recipient of federal taxpayer dollars.”

“However, Title IX also provides an exemption for institutions controlled by religious organizations to the extent that Title IX conflicts with the religious tenets of the controlling organization,” said Nolt.

'The Quaker faith has no history of opposing transgender identity and there’s nothing in the theology about transgender people.'

It’s not just religious organizations that get to opt out of federal anti-discrimination law, but also military training schools, sororities and fraternities, and membership organizations like Girl Scouts and even the YMCA, according to the Title IX legislation.

Rob Felton, director of public information for George Fox University, told VICE News that the college also has a conscientious objector exemption, which prevents military recruiters from entering the campus. That’s because Quaker religious beliefs oppose war.

But Paul Southwick, attorney for the transgender student, told VICE News the two exemptions “are not in the same category.”

“The Quaker faith has a long history of pacifism, so it seems like there’s more justification for opposing military recruiters,” Southwick said. “But the Quaker faith has no history of opposing transgender identity and there’s nothing in the theology about transgender people.”

George Fox is affiliated with the Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends, which Felton called an “evangelical Quaker” denomination. The university’s website describes the college as “Christ-centered” and includes a prominent Statement of Faith.

Quaker groups, like Christian churches, can vary widely in belief and practice. Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Queer Concerns holds an annual meeting for LGBTQ Quakers. This February, it was in Portland — about 30 minutes away from George Fox University.

'Our staff have spent hours with him in positive interactions, and offered support to him. We just happen to have a disagreement on appropriate housing.'

Felton told VICE News that George Fox sought the exemption not to push out the transgender student, but “to protect us from being forced to act in a manner inconsistent with our convictions.”

Felton explained the school had been in close negotiations with Jayce, and had offered him a single apartment on campus as a compromise to their housing policy. He added that the school doesn’t intend to bar transgender students in any way, and that another openly transgender student had just graduated this year.

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“Unfortunately lost in all the media fervor is the fact that Jayce wants to be here,” Felton said. “Our faculty and staff have spent hours and hours with him in positive interactions, and offered support to him in his decisions. We just happen to have a disagreement on appropriate housing.”

Jayce, a junior, plans to stay at George Fox and continue his education. Southwick told VICE News that Jayce has a full scholarship that’s hard to beat, and also that he’s received “overwhelming support” from other students.

'Jayce let you know who he is but you will not let him be himself on campus.'

And not just other students: Jayce’s mom, Janice, wrote a petition asking George Fox University to “Stop Denying My Son Appropriate On-Campus Housing.” So far, it has gathered over 21,500 signatures.

“The university’s motto is ‘Be known.’ Jayce let you know who he is but you will not let him be himself on campus,” wrote his mother in the online petition. “Being a religiously-affiliated school does not mean having to be unwilling to hear Jayce’s story, and see past preconceived notions of sex and gender and respect him for who God made him.”

This is not the first time Southwick has represented a transgender person in a university discrimination case. He also represents Domaine Javier, a young woman who came out as trans on MTV’s True Life and was then expelled from California Baptist University on the basis of “fraud” because she listed her sex as female on her admission application.

A judge ruled in favor of California Baptist on Monday, saying that the school had a right to discriminate because of its professed religious convictions.

Follow Mary Emily O’Hara on Twitter: @maryemilyohara

Photo via Wikimedia Commons