The Department of Education on Friday published thousands of pages of documents on religious schools applying for, and receiving, permission to discriminate against LGBT people and women — even though the schools continue to receive federal education funds.
Dorie Nolt, a spokesperson for the department, told BuzzFeed News, "Due to exceptional public demand for more information on this topic, we are posting documents related to this on our website to provide transparency around this issue.”
The records are available on a department webpage that includes records from 232 religious schools, including their applications to be exempt from civil rights laws banning sex-based discrimination in school, and letters from federal officials granting those requests. It also includes records from another 31 schools with pending requests.
It appears no request has ever been denied.
The cache is made public as applications for waivers have spiked in recent years — an apparent backlash to the Obama administration interpreting bans on sex discrimination to also include bans on transgender discrimination.
Since BuzzFeed News reported on the increasing number of exemptions in mid-December, it appears 16 more religious schools have applied for waivers.
Among the applications is a letter from Spring Arbor University President Brent Ellis, who requested in 2014 “to allow the University religious freedom to discriminate on the basis of sex, including gender identity, and sexual orientation, in regard to housing, living arrangements, restrooms, locker rooms, and athletics.” The request was granted on those terms.
Although some of the documents had been disclosed previously through records requests, the mass release of up-to-date documents comes four months after eight U.S. senators, including Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, requested more transparency into the practice of granting waivers from Title IX of the Education Act.
The 1972 law prohibits publicly funded schools from engaging in sex-based discrimination. However, it also provides an exemption for religious schools. By obtaining a waiver, the schools can discriminate even while taking in funding though Pell grants, federal student loans, or other federal sources.
Sen. Wyden told BuzzFeed News on Friday that by publishing the documents, “The Department of Education is helping students and parents get all the facts before they decide where to invest their higher education dollars.”
“Everyone should have the right to get an education at a school that respects and protects their core rights to be who they are and love who they want,” he added.
Although Title IX waivers were moderately popular in the 1970s and ‘80s, they were rarely sought in the past two decades. Before the Obama administration, it was generally by schools that wanted to ban women from seminary schools or oppose abortion.
Under the Obama administration, however, applicants have overwhelmingly sought to ban or discriminate against LGBT students or faculty. The increase in recent applications, and their shift in focus, is an apparent response to the Obama administration’s 2014 interpretation of Title IX, which asserted that transgender discrimination is illegal sex discrimination.
Since then, federal officials have walked a fine line between enforcing Title IX and granting exemptions to religious schools, as required by the law.
“We at the Department of Education vigorously enforce Title IX’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex, including gender identity, in every applicable school," said Nolt. "We are committed to protecting every student Congress gave us jurisdiction to protect, to the fullest extent of the law. However, Congress did exempt from Title IX’s protection institutions that are controlled by religious organizations, to the extent that Title IX conflicts with their religious tenets."
The assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department, Catherine Lhamon, told senators in January that her office would post the waiver requests and the government’s reply letters online.