SAN FRANCISCO – Nearly three dozen religious colleges and universities in 20 U.S. states have received federal waivers allowing them not to accommodate transgender students in admissions, housing and other areas of campus life, according to a report by the nation's largest LGBT rights group and documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The church-affiliated schools that in 2014 and 2015 obtained exemptions to a law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational settings collectively enroll more than 73,000 students, the Human Rights Campaign said in a report published Friday.
"What we want students to know is schools are serious about this, that they have gone out of their way to make sure they have the legal ability to discriminate against LGBT students," said Sarah Warbelow, the campaign's legal director.
Eighteen of the 34 universities and colleges that told the U.S. Department of Education that giving transgender students access to single-sex restrooms and facilities that correspond with their gender identity would be inconsistent with their religious tenets are controlled by the Southern Baptist Convention, according to public records obtained by both the Human Rights Campaign and the AP.
The Department of Education has seen the surge in waiver applications because its Office for Civil Rights has "exceeded its legal authority" by taking the position since 2013 that the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination applies to transgender students, Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Gregory Baylor said.
"The schools have reasonably concluded that they are quite likely to become the next target of OCR if they follow their religious convictions on these matters," said Baylor, whose Christian legal advocacy group has advised some colleges on how to seek the exemptions.
The tension mirrors disputes that have arisen over the refusal by Catholic hospitals and universities to offer contraception in their employee health plans and moves by local governments to stop contracting with religiously affiliated adoption agencies that refuse to place children in households headed by same-sex couples.