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Legal Discrimination

Legal Discrimination

A Deep Dive into Title IX and Religious Exemptions 

By Matthew Peinado 

Walla Walla University is in an ever precarious position. Balancing between loving and including LGBTQIA+ students and maintaining the Seventh-Day Adventist Church’s position on sexuality, gender identity, and marriage is no easy task. The Collegian took a deep-dive into the policies and language in the student handbook related to the issue, gathering information and opinions from students, LGBTQIA+ advocates, representatives of the University, and others. By exploring the ethics, legality, and various ways these policies affect students The Collegian has given you, the reader, a near complete analysis of the situation.  

Marriage Sexual Identity Policies 

A cute couple married within the Adventist church’s definition of marriage. Photo by Josh Beaudoin.

The 2021-2022 student handbook states under their Sexual Standards Policy, “Only couples united in a legal marriage between a man and a woman will be acknowledged as married in the policies of the university.” [1] 

Married relationships outside of this worldview are considered illegitimate by the University. All benefits given to heterosexual married couples are denied to those that do not fit the school’s definition of marriage.  

WWU seems to reward cisgender, heterosexual married couples with the ability to live as a couple in off-campus housing, drop the required meal plan, and forego required CommUnity and worship credits. [2]   

In the second half of the Sexual Identity Statement, the University takes their Sexual Standards Policy a step further by saying, “We believe that sexual relationships are to be expressed in the context of a committed marriage between a man and a woman… Walla Walla University reflects this conviction through its policies and expects faculty, staff, and students to honor this conviction in their behavior.” [3] 

Not only are LGBTQIA+ individuals denied the privileges given to heterosexual, cisgender, married couples, but a legally married LGBTQIA+ couple that doesn’t fit the University’s standard of marriage could be punished for acting on their romantic and sexual desires. The student handbook says the punishment will be determined on a case-by-case basis. This punishment could be something as small as a verbal warning and as detrimental as dismissal from WWU. 

[4] 

The University also guarantees in their Human Rights Policy that, “Walla Walla University is committed to equality in human rights and does not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, religion, color, gender, age, disability, or national origin in the administration of educational policies, admission policies, employment programs, scholarship and loan programs, or any other school-administered program.” [5] 

Notably, sexual orientation is missing from the list of protected classes. 

Questionable Ethics 

As a Christian university, the ethics of WWU’s LGBTQIA+ policies must be brought into question.  

Near the beginning of the student handbook, WWU states they are “committed to learning and practicing in ways that support a Christ-like, caring, and socially just community.” [6] Perhaps then, the best way to determine whether WWU’s policies are ethical is to determine whether they follow the University’s own commitment to the students. 

Is it Christ-like to deny rights and privileges to those who differ from oneself? Is it caring to say some individuals cannot fully express their love in the context of marriage because they love someone of the same sex? Is it socially just to put policies in place that alienate an entire community of students who are just as deserving of love and social equality as anyone else? 

The University seems to answer these questions in the first part of their Sexual Identity Statement. “We believe that every person is created in the image of God as a being of inestimable value and worth who is radically loved by God and imbued with the powers of intelligence, stewardship, and creativity akin to those of the Creator. God showed the depth of His love, compassion, and revolutionary hospitality for all humanity in the person of Jesus, and calls us as His followers to do the same regardless of sexuality and gender differences.” [7]  

Despite the clarity of their language, the University does not reflect this belief.   

Title IX and Federal Funding 

Regardless of the ethics, WWU is allowed to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ students in their student handbook.  

Title IX is a law designed to protect students, employees, and others from discrimination. “All students (as well as other persons) at recipient institutions are protected by Title IX—regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, part- or full-time status, disability, race, or national origin—in all aspects of a recipient’s educational programs and activities.” [8] 

All schools that accept federal money, whether public or private, must abide by Title IX unless they obtain a religious exemption. WWU’s Equal Opportunity, Harassment, and Discrimination Policy states “The University claims a religious exception from the provisions of Title IX… insofar as they conflict with church teachings and practices of morality, deportment, and appearance.” [9] By obtaining a religious exemption, WWU does not have to comply with Title IX protections they believe violate core tenants of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  

WWU’s website shows the University receives federal funding on behalf of students in the form of loans and grants. This money is solely used to help students pay for college. Federal funding is not given to any departments, building projects, or student life improvements. Even though WWU uses relatively little federal funding, the law states that federal scholarships, grants, or other funds extended to any entity for payment to or on behalf of students admitted to that entity or extended directly to such students for payment to that entity is included in federal financial aid. WWU is legally considered federally funded and would be required by law to uphold Title IX protections if they were to lose religious exemption. [10] 

Religious Exemption Accountability Project 

The Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) has been working since March of 2021 to protect students who are legally discriminated against in religious universities that receive public funding. According to their website, REAP has launched a “historic, class-action lawsuit” against the Department of Education. [11] This lawsuit represents 33 LGBTQIA+ students and alumni from religious universities across the country. Among the plaintiffs is Cameron Martinez, a fifth-year social work major from La Sierra University. 

In an interview with The Collegian, Martinez shared their experience with the suit and discrimination in higher Adventist education. Martinez said, “When I applied to La Sierra, I didn’t think I was queer.” [12] It was time spent in La Sierra’s LGBTQIA+ affirming student body that allowed Martinez to become comfortable in their gender identity and sexuality. 

Students at religious, federally funded universities like WWU have faced unwelcome environments, discriminatory policies, and even dismissal on the basis of their sexuality and gender identity. The REAP lawsuit is challenging the legality of religious exemption that allows schools to violate Title IX without consequence.  

REAP seeks to eliminate the legal discrimination taking place on college campuses receiving federal dollars. Photo from https://www.thereap.org/

Joe Baxter, a lawyer in the REAP lawsuit representing the students, offered The Collegian some insight into the lawsuit as well. “One of the key precedents for this case is Bob Jones University vs. the United States,” said Baxter. [13] 

In the early 1980s, BJU wouldn’t allow interracial marriages between students or faculty. The United States removed BJU’s tax-exempt status as a direct result of the discrimination. BJU tried to sue the United States by claiming a religious exemption as interracial marriage conflicted with the religious beliefs of the school. In 1983, the Supreme Court decided that religious freedom did not give BJU or any other university a right to invidiously discriminate in violation of the Civil Rights act. [14] 

Baxter postulated, “We see a lot of ties between the civil rights movement and this court case… This case is based in the same principles decided in BJU vs US.” Baxter also noted that the arguments used against this case are very similar, if not the exact same, as the arguments used against the civil rights movement. [15] 

Martinez stated, “I can understand that the Adventist schools attached to the Adventist Church are going to be religiously affiliated with that organization. At the same time, if an institutional system is affirming something that is inherently oppressive, it shouldn’t matter what the Adventist church is saying.” [16] 

The verdict in the lawsuit will set a precedent in whether religiously exempt universities can legally continue to violate Title IX protections and could be the determining factor in whether WWU ever changes its discriminatory policies. It is unclear when a verdict will be reached.  

S.R. 3 – Protection for LGBTQIA+ Persons at WWU 

In January of 2021, WWU student Senators Joshua Peinado, a now junior strategic communications major, and Hayden Sherrill, a now senior business major wrote S.R. 3 – Protection for LGBTQIA+ Persons at WWU for the student senate (read the S.R. 3 bill here). This bill called for the removal of aspects in the student handbook that “a) Discriminates against students based on sex, sexual identity, or preference. b) Is unenforceable, and simply serves as an aesthetic of homophobic attitudes that contribute to an unwelcoming environment towards LGBTQIA+ students, faculty, and staff.” [17] 

Sherrill was a key player in having S. R. 3 passed in the ASWWU Senate. Photo by ASWWU.

In an interview with The Collegian, Sherrill talked about how the bill came into existence. He stated, “It was an issue Josh and I kind of felt had been brewing for us our whole time at Walla Walla.” It was after Peinado and Sherrill got requests from their constituents to address the issue that they began writing a piece of legislation. [18] 

The bill passed nearly unanimously with all senators voting yes, barring a faculty representative who gave a vote of abstention. [19] 

Although the senate has no power to make changes to the student handbook, Sherrill and Peinado felt that as representatives of all students, it was important for the senate to take a stance against discriminatory policies and a lack of affirming language of LGBTQIA+ individuals in the student handbook. [20] 

In the aftermath of the bill’s passing, no substantial changes were made. Sherrill said, “We gave administration the bill, they have it, they’ve read it. We even had an ultra-conservative Adventist newspaper write an article about it. Even then, administration didn’t say anything about it.” [21] 

Editor’s Note: Read The Collegian’s previous coverage of the bill here.

Transgender and Nonbinary Students 

The University’s student handbook completely fails to address how their policies would affect transgender and nonbinary students.  

Let us say that someone is assigned female at birth transitions and presents as male and chooses to marry another male. The current policy, which seems to care more about binary sex assigned at birth, appears to imply that they will be fully recognized as being in an acceptable union. However, one must wonder whether or not WWU would choose to recognize their union under such discriminatory policies.  

It would not be unfounded to assume that the University would take the same perspective as the SDA church. In 2014, the SDA church gave the official statement, “In Scripture, our gender identity is, to a significant extent, determined by our birth sex with God being the author of gender identity.” [22] 

While WWU has enrolled and, on a case-by-case basis, allowed transgender students to live in residences of the gender they identify as, according to administration there are no cases of the school recognizing marriages between transgender and cisgender individuals. 

Jeremy Mendenhall, who assists Haven, the official, on-campus LGBTQIA+ support group, stated in an interview with The Collegian, “The school should have no objections to this [loving non-cisgender marriages]. The relationships can fit the school’s standards. However, they’re still targeted because they’re trans[gender]. We need to move beyond this. We need to move beyond discrimination. We need to accept and love everyone.” [23] 

 A Tale of Two Students 

Andrew Moeller and Kat Krause, two very different WWU students, offered their opinions on the policies and subjects related to it. The following is a transcript that combines the two interviews. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity. 

Q: Could you introduce yourself? 

Moeller: My name is Andrew Moeller, I am a senior theology major. I am a Christian first and foremost. It is my belief in Christianity and what the Bible teaches us about morality that makes me a conservative. 

Krause: My name is Kat Krause. I am a humanities major doing the honors program and I am gender nonbinary. 

Q: What do you think about WWU’s sexual standards policy and the implications that has for the LGBTQIA+ community? 

Moeller: I think it’s an appropriate policy. If you go back to Genesis, God created mankind in His image, male and female he created them. After that, God’s first command is for humanity to be fruitful and multiply. I would expect that the University as an Adventist institution would uphold what it means to be married. If it were a public university then all rights of marriage should be respected. 

Krause: It’s always a reminder that I am at a religious institution where my identity is at best, politely disagreed with. It’s wild to me because they’re refusing to acknowledge legal marriages. I’m not planning on getting married anytime soon so it doesn’t really personally affect me but at the same time, there’s that rejection that’s written into school policy.  

Q: Andrew, although WWU is private, we do accept federal funding for student grants. In your opinion, should that fact require the University to uphold Title IX protections for LGBTQIA+ individuals? 

Andrew Moeller. Photo by Andrew Moeller.

Moeller: In my opinion, it all comes down to freedom of religion. As a religious institution, regardless of whether you receive federal funding or not, you have to respect freedom of religion. The freedom for people to be quote-unquote “discriminatory” towards same-sex married couples based on religious principles. 

Q: What are your thoughts on the Religious Exemption Accountability Project? 

Moeller: My initial reaction to REAP is that it would be a deciding case. I hope the Department of Education wins. I think religious exemption is necessary. If the students win, what does that say about religious freedom in the United States? It essentially means there is no religious freedom. Regardless of federal funding, it comes down to religious liberty. Taking away religious exemption is one small step towards taking away religious liberty. What’s next? If REAP wins this case, it’s a slow slide towards taking away religious liberty that will turn into a landslide. 

Krause: It’s really tricky. This is a genuine conflict between religious freedom and anti-discrimination legislation. On one hand, it’s great that you can have religious universities that differ from public universities. On the other hand, being here as a queer student, I have to accept that the University doesn’t fully accept my existence. Knowing that if I were to get married in a same-sex relationship and that the University wouldn’t accept that is hard. I think it’s a question that is necessarily complex. 

Q: Kat, what do you think about the notion that this could be, to paraphrase Andrew, a slippery slope towards taking away religious freedoms? 

Kat Krause. Photo by ASWWU.

Krause: I think there is a reason that a slippery slope is a logical fallacy. I’m not convinced that disallowing religious exemptions from institutions that receive federal funding opens the door to infringement on other religious freedoms. 

Q: What are your thoughts on S.R. 3 Protections for LGBTQIA+ Persons at WWU? 

Moeller: I heard about the bill and its passing, it disappointed me greatly. I don’t think ASWWU does a great job of representing the student body. I think that unfortunately, the student body is split about 50/50 on affirming the LGBTQ community. It honestly didn’t surprise me that it passed. The one thing that was laughable to me is that ASWWU tried to change University policy. They don’t have the power to do that. [24] 

Kraus: I remember I emailed my senator about the bill asking them to support it. I thought it was a really great way to raise awareness about the issue on campus. It also put some real pressure on administration to consider the language of the handbook which is not affirming. Since then, the University essentially ignored it. It feels like they just put the issue on the shelf to collect dust. [25] 

Administration’s Response 

In an interview with The Collegian, Douglas Tilstra, vice president for student life, and David Iwasa, assistant vice president for student life, offered the administrative perspective on the issue. 

Tilstra was a huge support to The Collegian while preparing this article for publication. Photo by WWU.

When asked about the specific policies Tilstra said, “With the laws written as they currently are, we are allowed a religious exemption which does allow what some would consider to be levels of discrimination based on our religious beliefs.” [26] 

Iwasa compared the issue to another way in which WWU has a rule based upon the religious tenants of the SDA church: the school’s alcohol policy. While all public universities allow students to drink alcohol after the age of 21, it is against WWU’s policy to drink alcohol at any time while enrolled at the school. [27] 

Tilstra also noted that the policies are consistent between non-married heterosexual couples and non-married homosexual or non-cisgender couples. If students have sex before marriage, regardless of their sexual orientation, they would be in violation of the student handbook. [28] 

Despite the number of students that support the end of heterosexist* language in the student handbook, the University has made the decision to stand firm in the SDA church’s understanding of marriage. 

David Iwasa. Photo by WWU.

Iwasa offered a metaphor to describe the situation as he saw it. To summarize, Iwasa said it’s like going to a Macy’s store and asking the general manager to change the name to “Macys” without an apostrophe. You can tell the general manager to change it all you want. You can get all the employees and customers to sign a petition asking the general manager to change the name. Ultimately, the general manager is powerless to change the name because of the corporate superstructure. [29] 

Neither Tilstra nor Iwasa had heard about REAP and declined to comment on the implications the lawsuit could have if the plaintiffs win. Tilstra and Iwasa also declined to comment on the position of the plaintiffs, that religious universities which accept tax-payer funding should not discriminate in any way.  

On transgender and nonbinary students, administration took an almost progressive approach. “Our understanding of gender is the fact that yes, there is male and female. We also realize gender can have a fluidity to it and there are ways that we’re working to acknowledge that… However, we are not adjusting our policies to accommodate it,” said Tilstra. Tilstra also commented that the University has been talking about introducing gender-neutral language in the handbook and other administrative statements. [30] 

See Also

Final Thoughts 

At the end of each in-person and virtual interview, The Collegian asked every individual to share some final thoughts pertaining to the situation. The following is what was shared. 

“When we get comfortable with watching oppression happen without stepping in, it allows that pattern to continue. It completely destroys the person who experiences marginalization… When universities don’t call out and change oppressive behaviors they become an oppressive space.”  

-Cameron Martinez 

“As a student, I am happy to listen to anyone that disagrees with me… I think it’s important that if you disagree with [the] administration or the stance senate took last year, reach out to whoever you disagree with. It’s important to inform yourself, so really hear people out for who they are.” 

-Hayden Sherril 

 “If I can say anything, I’ll give my usual plug to ask people their pronouns when you first meet them. That takes the pressure off of those of us who use pronouns other than he/him and she/her.” 

 -Kat Krause 

“No, I don’t think I have any last words. I think I’ve said everything that needed to be said.” 

-Andrew Moeller 

“Where we are attempting to move as a university is away from areas of friction and towards saying ‘can we lead with what is possible and what we can experience on this campus so that everyone, including LGBTQ+ students feel loved and included like they belong… we’re not there yet, but that’s what we’re working towards.’” 

-Douglas Tilstra 

“I think what really struck a chord with me is that we really do care about the student experience. We want to hear stories where students have been positively or negatively impacted. We need to hear those stories so that we can help and change in the areas we need to.” 

-David Iwasa 

“Only when every student that comes here, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity can say ‘I was treated like every other student. I was treated with dignity, respect, and equality,’ only then can we rest. Until then, we have to keep pushing.” 

-Jeremy Mendenhall 

* Heterosexism: “discrimination or prejudice against non-heterosexual people based on the belief that heterosexuality is the only normal and natural expression of sexuality” [31] 

References 

  1. Walla Walla University. (n.d.). 2021-2022 Student Handbook. wallawalla.edu. https://bit.ly/3Cxxk8C    

2-7. Ibid. 

8. U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). U.S. Department of Education Confirms Title IX Protects Students from Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. Department of Educationhttps://bit.ly/3pYJ0O7 

9. Walla Walla University. (n.d.). 2021-2022 Student Handbook. wallawalla.edu. https://bit.ly/3Cxxk8C   

10. https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/44/19.105  

11. About us: Religious exemption accountability project: United States. My Site. (n.d.)., from https://www.thereap.org/lawsuit  

12. Interview with Cameron Martinez, 11/7/21. 

13. Interview with Joe Baxter, 11/11/21. 

14. Bobic, M. P. (n.d.). Bob Jones University v. United States. https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/37/bob-jones-university-v-united-states  

15. Interview with Joe Baxter, 11/11/21. 

16. Interview with Cameron Martinez, 11/7/21. 

17.  Peinado, J., & Sherill, H. (2020, January 18). PDF. College Place; ASWWU

18-21. Interview with Hayden Sherrill, 11/9/21. 

22. Human Rights Campaign. (n.d.). Stances of Faiths on LGBTQ issues: Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Human Rights Campaignhttps://bit.ly/3GEYzkb    

23. Interview with Jeremy Mendenhall, 10/29/31.  

24. Interview with Andrew Moeller, 11/9/21. 

25. Interview with Kat Krause, 11/10/21. 

26-30. Interview with Doug Tilstra and David Iwasa, 11/10/21. 

31.Merriam Webster. (n.d.). heterosexismhttps://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/heterosexism

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  • Thank you for such a well researched, multi-faceted, and in-depth article Matthew! And thank you for being willing to tackle this issue.

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