LGBT groups are criticizing Belmont Abbey College, North Carolina, for attaining a religious exemption which allows the school to discriminate against transgender and gender-nonconforming students.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex-based discrimination, has been interpreted recently to include LGBT protections. While religious exemptions are not new, application of these provisions has risen sharply as civil rights based on sexual and gender identity have expanded.
In a January 2015 letter to the U.S. Department of Education, Belmont Abbey’s president, Dr. William Theirfelder sought an exemption for the school. Citing a California legal case affording a transgender student equal rights, Theirfelder said the College “would not be able to make similar accommodations consistent with our Catholic beliefs.” College spokesperson Rolando Rivas concurred, saying the exemption was necessary to operate “in congruence with the teachings of the church.”
Belmont Abbey College, a Benedictine school, is now able to discriminate on the basis of gender identity in ten areas including “employment, the admission of students, housing and the provision of facilities like restrooms and locker rooms.” Abbot Placid Solari, Chancellor, said students will be treated based on assigned sex rather than gender identity. The president explained further, telling The New York Times:
“Among those beliefs, [Theirfelder] said, was a rejection of the idea that the ‘resolution of tension between one’s biological sex and the experience of gender’ can be found through gender reassignment surgery or the ‘adoption of a psychological identity’ typically associated with the opposite sex.”
Advocates, which include Campus Pride and the Human Rights Campaign, are calling attention to nearly three dozen colleges which have sought religious exemptions to LGBT protections from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The New York Times explained:
“The exemptions are in some cases wide-reaching and exempt schools from abiding by provisions of the law that they feel are inconsistent with their religious beliefs on a range of topics, including gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status and whether a person has had an abortion.”
Critics are questioning these exemptions because recipient institutions, like Belmont Abbey College, still receive government funding. Victoria M. Rodriguez-Roldan of the National LGBTQ Task Force said:
“What these universities are seeking is a license to discriminate while still receiving taxpayer money, and they are doing it out of an animus toward transgender people. . .It is what it is: discrimination and the unfair treatment of transgender people.”
Shane Windmeyer of Campus Pride, who is Catholic himself, told Gaston Gazette:
“Families and young people deserve to know that this list of schools are not loving, welcoming, safe spaces to live, learn and grow — and taxpayers should definitely not have to pay for a private college to openly discriminate against anyone.”
Windmeyer added that failure to support LGBT youth and young adults, particularly in religious communities, is linked strongly to higher rates of mental health issues, self-harm, and suicide.
For all Belmont Abbey College’s claims about Catholic identity, it misrepresents church teaching on gender identity.
There is no clearly articulated teaching on gender transition or on the gender norms the College seeks to enforce. While a clear doctrinal affirmation may not yet exist regarding gender identity questions, there are no clear prohibitions either. London’s Monsignor Keith Barltrop, tasked with LGBTQI outreach by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, has even said gender identity issues are a pastoral, not doctrinal, issue and the church should support those individuals who decided to transition. Other Catholic colleges, such as Georgetown University or Fordham University, have established supports for trans students consistent with a Catholic identity. One student, Lexi Dever, claimed Georgetown saved her life because it welcomed and nourished her as a trans student.
Belmont Abbey officials are obviously unaware that their policy is not supported by Catholic teaching, as they claim. In fact, their policy is undermining Catholic education and an approach to gender that is rooted in the Gospel and seeks the good for each and every student. Students at Belmont Abbey College deserve an apology. The Catholic faith, in whose name this exemption was claimed, demands better.
This post is part of our “Campus Chronicles” series on Catholic higher education. You can read more stories by clicking “Campus Chronicles” in the Categories section to the right or by clicking here. For the latest updates on Catholic LGBT issues, subscribe to our blog in the upper right hand corner of this page.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry