Baylor University is exempt from sexual harassment claims under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, following a decision by the Biden administration’s Department of Education to affirm the Baptist institution’s religious exemptions.
Title IX bans discrimination based on sex also requires colleges and universities to prevent and address sexual harassment. However, religious colleges and universities can seek an exemption if the requirements aren’t consistent with the organization that controls the institution.
The university argued in a letter to the department that civil rights complaints accusing Baylor of not responding to sexual harassment claims from an LGBTQ student should be dismissed because the requirements conflict with the institution’s religious tenets. Baylor officials told the department that it is exempt from any requirements under Title IX relating to sexual orientation or gender identity.
An advocacy group that tracks religious exemptions said the department’s decision to exempt Baylor from sexual harassment claims is the first of its kind, and that the move would endanger queer students at the university. The university said in a statement that the religious exemption “is being mischaracterized as a broad-based exception to sexual harassment policy within Title IX regulations.”
“Instead, Baylor is responding to current considerations by the U.S. Department of Education to move to an expanded definition of sexual harassment, which could infringe on Baylor’s rights under the U.S. Constitution, as well as Title IX, to conduct its affairs in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs,” Baylor spokeswoman Lori Fogleman said in the statement. “Baylor has taken and will continue to take meaningful steps to ensure members of the LGBTQ community are loved, cared for and protected as a part of the Baylor Family.”
Paul Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), which also filed complaints with the department’s Office for Civil Rights over Baylor’s treatment of LGBTQ students, said student safety is at stake in this decision.
“The government is siding with religious exemption claims, even when student safety from harassment is involved and I think any reasonable person would say that goes way too far,” he said.
Southwick clarified that it is not unusual or new for religious colleges to seek exemptions from federal regulations or laws; only the exemption from sexual harassment claims is unprecedented. The Religious Exemption Accountability Project has sued to block the federal government from allowing such exemptions from Title IX.
An Education Department spokesman directed Inside Higher Ed to the Office for Civil Rights’ letter to Baylor, affirming the university’s religious exemptions from Title IX. The letter, as typical with these types of responses, affirms that the department is granting the exemption, but does not explain its reasoning for granting it.
The Baylor LGBTQ student group shared news about the exemption and reminded students to be careful.
“We still exist and in community will continue to thrive,” the group wrote.
Veronica Penales, an LGBTQ+ student who graduated from Baylor this spring, said in a Title IX complaint in 2021 fileld by REAP that she faced harassment based on her sexual orientation while a student at Baylor. The harassment included being called a homophobic slur. Students also repeatedly posted sticky notes on her dorm room door that said “f-a-g.”
“They did it repeatedly, and she reported it to the university and they did not protect her,” Southwick said. “That’s essentially what they were trying to be immune from. Failure to respond to that kind of horrible harassment.”
Penales said in a statement provided by REAP that she was “saddened by Baylor’s lack of integrity and accountability to their students.”
“I know many will not feel safe returning to campus, and rightfully so,” the statement continued. “If Baylor believes it has a religious liberty right to allow us to be harassed, there truly are no protections left for us.”
Baylor sought the exemption after the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights started investigating complaints, including Penales’, that accused the university of tolerating sexual harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, denying recognition of an LGBTQ student group, and pressing university media to not report on LGBTQ events and protests in September and October 2021. (The complaints were filed in 2021, and the university granted the student group a charter in 2022.)
“Because each of Baylor’s rules and policies at issue derives from Baylor’s religious tenets as a Baptist university, Baylor’s enforcement of those rules and policies is fully exempt from any requirements under Title IX relating to sexual orientation or gender identity,” Baylor President Linda Livingstone wrote in a letter to OCR requesting the exemption.
The university wanted assurances that “Baylor could not be found in violation of Title IX on the ground that the belief in or practice of its religious tenets by the university or its students constitutes ‘unwelcome conduct,’” according to a footnote in the request.
Southwick said the department hasn’t yet decided whether to close its Title IX investigations into Baylor, and he’s not sure how the exemption will affect the complaint.
“This is unchartered territory when it comes to sexual harassment,” he said. “What I can tell you is that the Department of Education has never denied a religious exemption and when a school has asserted one, historically, for our complaints involving queer and trans students, they’ve always dismissed the investigations afterward.”
One Baylor graduate asked on X, the platform formally known as Twitter, “how many queer students will be harassed and abused at the hand of a ‘Christian’ university?”
“Baylor doesn’t care,” the user wrote.
In the letter to the department, Livingston wrote that Baylor welcomes and supports all its students and employees who agree to abide by its religious tenets, including those who identify as LGBTQI+.
“The university does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression per se, but it does regulate conduct that is inconsistent with the religious values and beliefs that are integral to its Christian faith and mission,” the letter says.