Equality law threatens US religious colleges’ public funding

Rising public support for barring discrimination against LGBTQ people

March 25, 2021
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US religious colleges are encountering a rising tide of support for gender-related equity that could force them to choose between government funding and acts of exclusion that have grown increasingly unpopular in US society.

One main threat to such colleges is a bill moving through Congress, known as the Equality Act, that would broadly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Many Christian-affiliated institutions are protesting against the measure, which narrowly passed the House of Representatives and is awaiting a vote in the Senate, fearing it could upset such traditions as student morality codes.

The bill “fails to do justice to the rich complexity of moral traditions that are central to the multi-faith and pluralistic world of 21st century America”, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities has said in a written dissent.

As reflected in US public opinion, however, the coalition of 140 religiously oriented institutions faces mounting hurdles. An annual survey by the Public Religion Research Institute last year found that 76 per cent of Americans favour laws that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, up from 72 per cent in 2019 and the highest level since the PRRI began asking in 2015.

The idea of expanded protections is nevertheless facing significant pushback from political conservatives, especially over matters of transgender rights. Lawmakers in more than half of US states are pursuing measures that would ban transgender women and girls playing school sports on female teams.

And the US Senate, while overwhelmingly confirming Miguel Cardona to be US education secretary earlier this month, saw several senators vote against him over his refusal to denounce the idea of transgender athletes on female teams.

Hundreds of college athletes are pushing in the other direction, signing a letter to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the main governing body of US college athletics, asking it to forbid championship events in states that impose such bans. A similar tactic by the NCAA proved successful in 2016 after North Carolina passed legislation that restricted transgender use of public bathrooms.

The NCAA’s own policy lets transgender athletes compete on women’s teams after they have had a year of hormone-suppression treatment. And although they are battling the Equality Act, US Christian colleges are showing greater recognition of the need to somehow find more of a middle ground on LGBTQ-related discrimination.

The text of the Equality Act is problematic, according to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, because it explicitly excludes itself from a 1993 law that largely allows religious-based exceptions from federal laws.

The Council instead backs an alternative pending in Congress known as the Fairness for All Act that contains LGBTQ protections with more explicit religious exemptions.

Experts anticipate some level of compromise between the two approaches ahead of a Senate vote, given that Congress is unlikely to make a change in law that would leave colleges and universities ineligible for the federal money that is critical to their survival.

Even the lead legislative author of the Equality Act has suggested that he ultimately means to pose little threat to longstanding operations at religious colleges. The lawmaker, David Cicilline, a Democrat, has said that his measure would protect institutions with a proven record of religious motivation behind their policies.

The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, however, wasn’t convinced, calling the 1993 law “an irreplaceable protection”.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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