One of Oklahoma’s largest faith-based universities is among 25 higher education institutions named in a recent federal class action lawsuit against the US Department of Education.
Filed by the nonprofit Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), the prosecution, Elizabeth Hunter, et al. v. US Department of Education, is brought against the department on behalf of 33 LGBTQ students who are current and past students at Christian colleges and universities, including Oklahoma Baptist University (OBU).
The lawsuit claims that the current religious exemption that allows these schools to have traditional faith-based policies is unconstitutional because these schools receive federal funding.
“The plaintiffs seek security and justice for themselves and for the countless students of sexual and gender minorities whose oppression, fueled by government funding and not restrained by government intervention, persists with damaging consequences. for mind, body and soul, âreads the lawsuit, filed March 29, 2021, in US District Court in Oregon. “The Department’s inaction leaves students unprotected from the harms of conversion therapy, eviction, denial of housing and health care, sexual and physical abuse and harassment, as well as the less visible consequences,” but no less damaging, institutionalized shame, fear, anxiety, and loneliness.
Among the student complainants is Tristan Campbell, a former OBU student who claims he was discriminated against by faculty, staff and students after publicly declaring himself bisexual.
Campbell attended the OBU from August 2013 to December 2015. After âcoming outâ in his sophomore year and speaking out on social media, he said, he received a reprimand school official, was fired from his post as resident assistant, harassed by other students, and then dismissed from the university without warning.
“OBU forced me to choose between my own beliefs and beliefs about myself, my identity and what was best for my sanity, and OBU’s beliefs and beliefs about me and my identity, which were hurting me.” Campbell said.
Like most faith-based institutions of higher education, the OBU requires students to adhere to a strict code of conduct that follows traditional Christian orthodoxy and only allows sex between heterosexual married couples.
While the university cannot comment on the pending litigation, Paula Gower, associate vice president for marketing and communications, made the following statement:
âOBU exists to equip students as future leaders who will impact the world for the gospel of Jesus Christ through their vocations, integrating faith and knowledge from a biblical and centered worldview. Christ. Founded in 1910 by the Oklahoma Baptist General Convention, the OBU continues to operate under the authority of the Oklahoma Baptists in accordance with established religious beliefs and practices. As a caring Christian community, OBU expects all students and staff to show love for Christ and treat each person as a bearer of the image of God, worthy of respect, worth and dignity. Serving and caring for a diverse student body, OBU has zero tolerance for harassment, violence, bullying and assault.
The REAP lawsuit comes at a time when the issue of federal funding for denominational schools is under renewed scrutiny following the passage of the US House of the “Equality Act.”
Passed in February by the House but currently blocked in the Senate, the law is a sweeping law that adds gender identity and sexual orientation to classes protected under federal law. At the same time, it considerably weakens the traditional exemptions normally applied to religious groups and individuals.
The REAP lawsuit is designed to prevent these “carve-out” exemptions, arguing that these exemptions distinguish LGBTQ students as a “socially despised group for legal disfavour.”
If it were to become federal law, the equality law would be a disaster for denominational schools across the country which could potentially lose federal funding and even accreditation, said Robert Gagnon, Ph.D., professor of theology at the Houston Baptist University and a specialist in faith-based education and sexual ethics. If the law is passed, he said, faith-based schools would be forced to either forgo funding or adopt policies that directly contradict their religious tenets.
âThis is an attempt to ostracize and shame people who adhere to the teachings of Jesus,â Gagnon said. âIf college education is required to approve and provide special accommodations that violate these teachings, that implies compulsory speech. This is what these laws are designed for, and many academic institutions will be tempted to fall back on this important issue of faithful Christian education.
âThe ultimate goal is for loyal Christian educational institutions to be denied tax exemption and taxpayer funding, such as federal student loans and research grants, unless they capitulate to a sexual agenda. ‘extreme left,’ he continued. âIn the long term, even their accreditation will be called into question. We envision a potential demise of faithful Christian education in the United States. “
According to REAP, there are approximately 600 nonprofit, four-year, degree-granting Christian colleges in the United States, one-third of which have policies against LGBTQ students in their student code of conduct policies.