50 years after Title IX passed, LGBTQ+ students still seeking protections at private universities
Jamie Lord graduated from Regent University School of Law in May. Originally from South Carolina, she’d never heard of the private, Christian university in Virginia Beach — until she got an offer from the school with a significant financial scholarship, based solely on her Law School Admission Test score.
“The school was definitely conservative, and I’m from the South, so I’m used to that kind of lifestyle,” the 24-year-old graduate recently told VPM News. “That was not anything shocking to me, but it’s a beautiful campus — a beautiful school — with just terrible people inside of it.”
She’d heard of Pat Robertson, the Christian TV evangelist and CEO of Regent University. But she had a sense that he wasn’t closely involved in campus life or academics. Lord had a positive impression of the campus when she arrived in August 2019, but the feeling of safety and comfort quickly waned.
“A certain group of my friends knew I was gay, but it was very much like, ‘You do not tell anyone.’ And they were scared to even be associated with me if it came out that I was gay,” Lord said.
Lord’s first year
During her first year at Regent, Lord said a professor, who knew she was gay, spoke during class about LGBTQ+ people being child molesters, pedophiles and undeserving of marriage. She was mortified. So, she went to the dean, who, Lord said, directed her to talk to the professor about her concerns.
“I actually followed the dean’s advice. I went and specifically talked to the teacher about what was going on. And that teacher immediately shut me down,” Lord said. “He told me that his own brother was gay and that he did not accept ‘the lifestyle,’ and that if I prayed hard enough that I could be straight, and I was just confused and destined for hell.”
For the remainder of her class, Lord said the professor continued making disparaging comments and referred to LGBTQ+ people as “the gays,” despite her repeated objections.
Regent University declined to comment on Lord's allegations, including whether the professor in question was disciplined for their comments to her.
“Federal privacy laws, including the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), prevent us from sharing any specific information related to the student. It is important to understand that as a private, Christian university, Regent upholds Biblical values and teaches traditional Christian principles. When enrolling at Regent, every student is required to sign a document agreeing to fully accept the university’s [Standards of Conduct for Students], which specifically states that conduct that violates Biblical standards is prohibited. At the same time, as followers of Christ, Regent staff and faculty are committed to treating every student with love, dignity, and respect. Regent strives to provide a safe and secure academic environment, to fulfill its obligation to prevent incidents of sexual harassment and assault, and to efficiently, and effectively, address complaints.”
The law school’s nondiscrimination policy bans “discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, age, disability, or status as a veteran or disabled veteran,” and claims to not discriminate “purely on the basis of an individual’s professed sexual orientation, but only with regard to accompanying sexual conduct or other actions that undermine the university’s Christian character.”
According to the student handbook, the university explicitly bans “homosexual conduct,” and stresses the importance of “heterosexual marriage as God's intended context for complete sexual expression to occur.”
Lord, who said another administrator told her that she was risking her scholarship by being openly gay at the university, eventually agreed to complete her degree exclusively over Zoom.
Title IX complaint process
It wasn’t until her second year of law school that she became aware of the Title IX complaint process. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 bars discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. Last June, the U.S. Department of Education confirmed that Title IX also protects students from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Anyone can file a Title IX complaint with the DOE Office for Civil Rights. But the office also encourages people who want to make an official complaint to first try resolving the issue through the institution’s in-house grievance process. Lord said she wasn’t interested in taking the complaint to the same administrators she believed declined to take action to end what she perceived to be discriminatory behavior.
One day while scrolling Facebook, Lord came across an ad for the Religious Exemption Accountability Project. The organization represents dozens of LGBTQ+ students in a lawsuit filed in March 2021 challenging discrimination at religious colleges across the country that receive federal funding.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, that's exactly what I'm going through,’” Lord recalled.
She emailed the organization and quickly added her name to the class-action lawsuit, joining two students from Virginia’s Liberty University. Lawyer’s for REAP filed a Title IX complaint with the federal government on Lord’s behalf.
Paul Southwick, REAP director and head attorney, said the lawsuit began as a way to empower queer, trans and nonbinary students who attended private religious schools.
Many of those schools receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding in the form of student aid, grants and loans for constructing and repairing facilities on campus. Regent, for instance, received $116,251,145 in 2019, the vast majority of which was used for student aid. But religious schools like Regent have the right to claim an exemption from any part of Title IX.
“It’s essentially carte blanche to discriminate as long as they can prove that their religious tenets are in conflict with Title IX,” Southwick said.
Southwick’s lawsuit claims the exemptions are unconstitutional and that a Trump-era expansion of those exemptions violates the Administrative Procedures Act. The attorney has asked the court to direct the U.S. Department of Education not to dismiss pending Title IX complaints on the basis of religious exemptions.
Right now, Southwick said, the federal government has agreed to open investigations in seven of the more than 40 cases that REAP has filed for various plaintiffs.
“What has happened every time historically and what we anticipate will happen to all seven of these active investigations is as soon as the school plays its religious exemption card, those investigations are dismissed,” Southwick said. “It’s really a matter of when do they want to play that card and when do they not want to.”
Lord is now at home in South Carolina, busy with her pets and studying for the bar while her fiancée is deployed.
“My meemaw always told me, ‘No one can take an education from you … and it’s very important to take it seriously and prepare yourself for where you’re going,’” Lord said. But she told VPM News that a scholarship isn’t worth one’s own mental health. “The stuff I went through at Regent made me question if I even wanted to be a lawyer."