Religious University President: We Want Permission To Discriminate But We Won’t Use It

An all-women residence hall at Spring Arbor University. CREDIT: ARBOR.EDU

Spring Arbor University President Brent Ellis told reporters from MLive and the Jackson Citizen Patriot Tuesday that his university won’t discriminate against its LGBT students and staff despite specifically asking for, and receiving, permission to do so by the Department of Education.

“We did not ask for this so we could do other things,” Ellis said in an interview. “We asked for the exemption to maintain being who we are and have been. No way are we changing our policies and practices. We will still be welcoming, but we will not be affirming.”

The Free Methodist Church-affiliated university, located in Spring Arbor, Michigan, is one of three colleges granted religious exemptions from Title IX requirements by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in late July. Established in 1972, Title IX bars schools that receive federal funding, including Pell Grants and students loans, from exercising sex-based discrimination, but does allow religious exemptions for certain universities. In April, Title IX was expanded to include transgender and gender non-conforming students, and two months later, Ellis penned a letter to the Department of Education requesting an exemption.

Ellis argued that maintaining the expanded requirements would conflict with the university’s religious and moral foundation citing its already imposed, and overtly discriminatory, regulations in its Code of Conduct. In fact, his letter specifically asks for a religious exemption “so that the University may discriminate on religious grounds in regard to its students and employees.”

As outlined in the Code of Conduct, derived from the Free Methodist Book of Discipline, students and staff are prohibited from “drinking, smoking, using tobacco, and illegal drugs, cohabitation, engaging in pre-marital or extra-marital sex and homosexual activity”; the latter includes “same sex dating behavior” as well as its “promotion, advocacy, and defense.”

The university also regulates access to residence halls, restrooms and locker rooms by gender and claimed Title IX would require it to “allow a person with gender identity issues to be treated as a member of the sex which they have assigned to themselves.” Under current university policy, even the few students who have undergone gender reassignment or hormonal treatment are not allowed to live with other students of the same gender.

Further, Spring Arbor says it “will not support persistent or conspicuous examples of cross-dressing or other expressions or actions that are deliberately discordant with birth gender.” If found in violation of the Code of Conduct, the university can impose sanctions on students and staff as strict as dismissal from the school or termination of employment.

“What this allows us to do is instead of the Department of Education telling us how to respond to each one of these issues, we determine as a community of faith committed to the teachings of Christ on how to work with each situation case-by-case just like we do now,” Ellis said. “Just because we have the exemption doesn’t mean we will exercise it to its fullest.”

In February 2007, Spring Arbor University fired Julie Nemeck, an associate professor and assistant dean who had been at the university for 17 years, after she began her transition, and was forced to settle a suit after she filed a complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Title IX exemptions from the U.S. Department of Education would give Spring Arbor University the legal framework to fire Nemeck if she still worked for the university without fear of reprisal.

At George Fox University in Oregon, school officials used their Title IX exemptions to deny the request of a male transgender student to live in a residence hall with other men. The university maintains single-sex dorms due to its “religious commitments on sexuality and efforts to build community within a residential environment” but decided to define single-sex “anatomically” following the controversy. Simpson University in California, the third college that received a religious exemption, wrote in its letter to the Department of Education that “sexual practices that are divorced from loving, covenental relationships between men and women pervert God’s intentions” and “any individual who violates campus standard for biblical living is subject to discipline, including expulsion.”