Religious schools that receive federal money yet obtain federal exemptions to discriminate against LGBT students and employees will have their waivers posted online for public view, under a decision by the Department of Education.
Announced in a letter to lawmakers that was obtained by BuzzFeed News, the decision comes one month after eight U.S. senators requested more transparency into the practice of granting school waivers from Title IX of the Education Act.
The 1972 law bans publicly funded schools from engaging in sex-based discrimination — which the Obama administration has applied to protect LGBT students — but Congress also provided an exemption for religious schools.
The assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department, Catherine Lhamon, told the senators on Wednesday that her office is planning to post the waiver requests and the government’s reply letters “on our website with a basic search tool so that applicants, students, parents, and others can be better informed about which educational institutions have sought and/or received a religious exemption.”
BuzzFeed News first reported on the full scope of the waiver trend in December — including 60 religious universities have obtained a waiver under the Obama administration. That’s a sharp uptick from the two previous decades, when waivers concerned matters like allowing only men into seminary schools, abortion, pregnancy, or banning unmarried faculty.
As of December, officials had never denied a school’s request.
Led by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the lawmakers said in December, “We are concerned these waivers allow for discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.” They continued: “At a very minimum, we believe that parents, students, and taxpayers have a right to know when institutions of higher education — as recipients of tax dollars — seek and receive exemptions under Title IX as well as the justification of those exemptions.”
In response, Lhamon wrote, “I appreciate your suggestion the we provide more transparency about the religious exemption requests received and [the department’s] responses. I agree.”
Lhamon added that both applications for the waivers and the government’s replies will be posted online “sometime in coming months” as part of the department’s broader push to increase transparency.
Dorie Nolt, a department spokeswoman, did not put a finer point on that timeline, but she told BuzzFeed News officials were doing everything within their power to enforce discrimination bans.
Nolt said in a statement, as Lhamon has said in the past, “We are committed to protecting every student Congress gave us jurisdiction to protect, to the fullest extent of the law.”
Sen. Wyden issued a statement Wednesday calling the announcement a “positive step toward greater transparency and accountability.”
The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group, also applauded the news.
“We have been alarmed by the growing trend of schools quietly seeking the right to discriminate against LGBT students, and not disclosing that information publicly,” the organization’s president, Chad Griffin, said in a statement. “We believe that religious liberty is a bedrock principle of our nation, however, faith should never be used as a guise for discrimination.”
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