Faculty & Staff / Social Justice

How the Federal Government Can Do More to Protect LGBTQ Students Attending Religious Universities & Colleges


Wolff_154x154Joshua Wolff, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Adler University in Chicago. He is also a licensed clinical psychologist in IL. He obtained his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Biola University in La Mirada, CA. He has written about LGBTQ student issues in non-affirming religious higher education for various sources, including Inside Higher Ed, the Journal of LGBT Youth, and Christian Higher Education. 

This September, I met with staff members in the Office of Civil Rights, at the U.S. Department of Education (DOEd) in Washington, D.C. to talk about the risks posed to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) students by disaffirming religious universities/colleges (DRUs). Last year, the DOEd published a list of religious colleges and universities which have applied for exemption to Title IX, which includes federal regulations against sex discrimination in colleges. These are institutions of higher education seeking to discriminate against LGBTQ students on the basis of the institutions’ religious convictions—while still collecting taxpayer dollars.

Currently, Title IX allows schools who are “controlled by a religious entity” to request exemptions to Title IX on the basis of religious beliefs which may be in conflict with federal regulations. Since Title IX was passed in 1972, requests for exemptions were generally limited to contraception concerns at Catholic schools. However, there has been a dramatic increase in Title IX exemption requests over the past 2 years in response to growing social and legal acceptance of LGBTQ people. As it currently stands, universities with Title IX exemption are allowed to:

  • Refuse to admit or retain students based on their sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Refuse gender-affirming housing or restrooms to transgender students
  • Discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment

This issue is personal to me, as a gay man who came out while attending a faith-based school, Biola University, which has requested to be exempt from Title IX in order to discriminate against its own students based on their gender identity and sex. Looking back, I can say without a doubt that these were some of the darkest times in my life as I struggled with depression, isolation and fear of dismissal or probation while in graduate school. However, I also had some positive experiences there from peers and faculty who supported me and gave me a good education, which means I also care deeply about faith-based education, and see that it can be of great value. These experiences strongly influenced my decision to be an advocate for LGBTQ students who attend DRUs by speaking out, writing, publishing research, and engaging in political advocacy on their behalf.

Josh_DOEI know from experience how damaging these policies can be and recently authored a study investigating the experiences of sexual minority (SM) students—a term which includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer/questioning people—who attended DRUs in the United States.

Alarmingly, the results demonstrated that more than 1 third (37%) of SM students who attend DRUs reported being bullied or harassed at school because of their sexual orientation. This number is almost twice that of the national average (23%) for LGBTQ college students. These SM students who were bullied because of their sexual orientation were more likely to report symptoms of depression.

Further, almost 1 in 5 students (17%) reported a mental health professional had attempted to change their sexual orientation, a process known as “conversion therapy”. Conversion therapy is condemned by the American Psychological Association and the U.S. government due to its lack of effectiveness and potential to cause psychological harm. While we did not assess whether the therapy occurred at the university or not, it’s reasonable to assume that many college students would have sought counseling services at the college counseling center due to their ease of accessibility and low cost.

Also, less than half of the students were involved with an affirming on-campus organization, such as a Gender & Sexuality Alliance (GSA). This is noteworthy, since results demonstrated that students who were involved with a GSA had significantly less difficultly with their sexual orientation, less negative identities, and less religious incongruence (tension between one’s faith and sexual orientation) than those students not involved with a GSA.

Given that the DOEd is legally mandated to grant Title IX exemptions to religiously controlled institutions, this limits the DOEd’s oversight. That being said, the question still remains of “what can the DOEd do to protect LGBTQ students from potentially harmful environments at DRU’s”? These are some of the recommendations I discussed with the DOEd during my meeting:

  • Clear language is needed from DOEd on what the limits of these Title IX exemptions are. The legislative exemptions suggest that schools can hold and express religious beliefs that affect admission, hiring, and retention. However, under no circumstances should exempt schools be “off the hook” from ensuring that their students are protected from bullying or harassment. A critical starting point is for DRU’s to explicitly add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in their anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies. These policies must be enforced, and not just added in name only. Further, LGBTQ students must be able to report bullying or harassment, without penalty. For example, a lesbian student who reports being bullied on the basis of her sexual orientation should not then be disciplined for also outing herself as a lesbian to campus staff. When schools fail to keep students safe, the DOEd has a responsibility to investigate these complaints, just as it does with non-religious colleges and universities now.


  • LGBTQ students need to be able to assemble with others who may have similar experiences, without fear of retribution or school encroachment into the privacy of the students who assemble. A wealth of research demonstrates the benefits of social support for LGBTQ students, including decreased risks for depression, suicide, and substance abuse problems. Denying LGBTQ students the right to organize on campus in any meaningful way puts them at serious risk. Exempt schools would reasonably argue that they should not have to allow students to assemble under an identity that would violate behavioral standards. However, many schools have found creative ways around this that still allow students to meet and support one another, such as helping students form GSA’s off-campus, without fear of retaliation from the school. Again, the DOEd could use its influence and resources to help DRUs find solutions that support students without violating a school’s religious tenants.


  • Staff in DRU counseling centers, student services, and health clinics must be appropriately trained in working with LGBTQ individuals. These staff members are often the first people who students may turn to for help, and have the potential to do both great help or harm depending on their level of training and experience. As such, the DOEd could assist schools in helping them strengthen these services to LGBTQ students in ways that are consistent with clinical guidelines from the American Psychological Association (APA) or American Counseling Association (ACA). DOEd also must ensure that schools that receive taxpayer money end the practice or promotion of “conversion” therapy.


  • Students and the public at large deserve greater visibility and transparency about any school that accepts taxpayer money and requests exemptions from federal anti-discrimination laws, whether on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or any other protected status. Students, parents, donors, alumni, and prospective staff/faculty have a right know if they, or someone they care about, may not be protected under federal and/or state laws.

Ultimately, making campus safer and providing appropriate resources is a way for religious schools to live out their institutional religious values of social justice, compassion, and grace to those who society and/or circumstances marginalize. I also support religious schools’ Constitutionally-protected right to express their beliefs and maintain standards of conduct that align with their institutional values. However, when those beliefs put students in harm’s way, our government cannot be expected to ignore the safety and well-being of students at institutions who receive taxpayer money.