A class action lawsuit, featuring two former Brigham Young University-Idaho students, was filed Wednesday against the U.S. Department of Education over the students’ Title IX rights.
There are 33 plaintiffs, LGBTQ students from 25 religious colleges, in the lawsuit. Paul Southwick, an attorney located in Portland, Oregon is representing the plaintiffs who claim they have experienced discrimination from their college institutions.
“Unfortunately, as society has become a lot more accepting and the law has offered a lot more protections, often many religious colleges have not and have either remained stagnant or have actually made it more difficult for LGBTQ students on their campuses,” Southwick said.
The lawsuit aims for a federal court to declare religious exemption to Title IX unconstitutional as a violation of the First Amendment's prohibition on the establishment of religion and a violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of Equal Protection of the laws for LGBTQ Americans.
Title IX is a federal civil rights law passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972. This law protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.
The Department of Education grants private religious universities exemption from Title IX. The lawsuit argues this is unconstitutional because the government provides public taxpayer dollars to these institutions.
“When the government provides public funds to private actors, like the colleges and universities represented by Plaintiffs, the Constitution restrains the government from allowing such private actors to use those funds to harm disadvantaged people,” the lawsuit says. “This Constitutional principle remains true even when the private actors are operating according to sincerely held religious beliefs, and it remains true whether the people they are harming are racial or ethnic minorities, sexual or gender minorities or those who reflect multiple, intersecting identities.”
One of the plaintiffs, Chandler Horning, graduated from BYU-Idaho in April 2020. He told the Standard Journal he spent two semesters on campus because he was taking classes online before then. Those two semesters felt like a lifetime for him.
“While I was on campus, I realized this is actually incredibly difficult for me and I don’t know if I can do this,” Horning said. “It’s just incredibly difficult being LGBT closeted.”
Horning said he felt anxiety, depression, stress and fear every day while he was on campus. He had come out as gay before, but put himself back in the closet while he was on campus.
A March 2021 report published by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project and College Pulse concludes sexual and gender minority students enrolled at Christian colleges and universities experience more harm, isolation and less inclusion on their campus, leaving them with different mental health outcomes and college experiences than straight students.
College Pulse is a survey research and analytics company that focuses on college students in the U.S.
According to the lawsuit, BYU-Idaho has a page on its counselling center website specifically discussing same sex attraction that says: “Sadly, anxiety, depression, social difficulties, feelings of isolation, and even suicidal thoughts may arise for individuals experiencing same-gender attraction.” The resources on this page lead only to LDS-approved materials.
Horning said those feelings often arise from the social environment LGBTQ students are in. Acting out on his sexuality could have resulted in his expulsion and eviction from BYU-Idaho housing.
“You can be gay and go to BYU-Idaho. That’s no problem. It’s the dating and anything homosexual that you do in your actions that would get you kicked out,” he said. “It’s a snitch culture, literally, your friends are the police, your classmates are the police.”
Horning’s upbringing in the LDS church as a child and a teenager coded him to date women, even though he knew he was attracted to men, he said. He was closeted and not ready to face what would happen if he came out at 17 years old.
“I did what every Mormon kid does and applied to a church school,” he said.
Another plaintiff, Rachel Moulton, was a BYU-Idaho student who left the university at the end of 2020 to protect her mental health after learning “BYU’s toxicity was not limited to in-person learning,” according to the lawsuit.
“They compared LGBTQ+ people, who just wanted the right to marry the person they love, to agents of Satan who were attacking the family,” Moulton said in the lawsuit.
Moulton’s complaint in the lawsuit says the university taught her and other LGBT women that they could be happy marrying a man, even though they "struggle with same-sex attraction." LGBTQ students are also taught they would no longer experience same-sex attraction in the afterlife, according to the lawsuit.
This led Moulton to feel suicidal ideation because she would do “anything not to be gay,” even if it meant ending her own life, the lawsuit says. Moulton attempted suicide halfway through her first semester at BYU-Idaho.
Moulton is now attending therapy, trying to reconcile being gay and being an LDS church member, according to the lawsuit.
“I know I am a child of God,” she said. “I know now that being gay and being a child of God can both be true. This acceptance of myself has healed me from a lot of the religious trauma I experienced earlier in my life.”
Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include current students, recently expelled students, and recent alumni who suffered conversion therapy and/or other discipline from their colleges. Some plaintiffs are using a pseudonym for their safety.
Southwick said stories such as Horning’s and Moulton’s are important, but they are one of many that are experienced by LGBTQ students at religious universities. Since filing the case, more than 30 people have asked to be part of the lawsuit and Southwick expects more, he said.
“We want the department to know that it’s not just one or two kids,” Southwick said. “We want the department to intervene on behalf of the many and on behalf of the kids that are still at BYU-Idaho or at other schools and are still suffering.”
BYU-Idaho students have formed an unofficial LGBTQ support group, but they are not allowed to meet on campus, the lawsuit says.
Horning said the student club Understanding Same Gender Attraction saw new students coming to meetings every week.
“They wish there was another way out, but there just wasn’t unfortunately,” Horning said.
Many LGBTQ students try to transfer out of their religious institutions, Southwick said. Horning tried to do the same during his senior year but was unable to do so.
Religious institutions require students to take religion or Bible study-type courses, Southwick said. Those credits are not transferable to fulfill degree requirements at secular schools, which leads to a greater financial burden should those students choose to attend another university.
Horning said he felt relief after graduating, knowing that he could let go of his worries of what other people on campus thought or worries of someone going to the university’s honor office to try and get him expelled.
“I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through while they’re trapped at a school because they can’t transfer out,” Horning said.