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The REAP lawsuit: An Apocalyptic Moment for Evangelical Colleges | Righting America

by William Trollinger

“Meet the Plaintiffs” image courtesy of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), 2021.

In the wake of the 2015 Supreme Court ruling (Obergefell v. Hodges) legalizing same-sex marriage, a good friend of mine predicted this day was coming. This past weekend he sent me a one-sentence email: “And now the other shoe has finally dropped.”

33 current and former college and seminary students have filed a class action lawsuit seeking – to quote from the suit filed by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) – “to put an end to the U. S. Department of Education’s complicity in the abuses and unsafe conditions thousands of LGBTQ+ students endure at hundreds of taxpayer-funded, religious colleges and universities.” 

The schools that the plaintiffs attend or attended constitute a veritable Who’s Who of evangelical and fundamentalist educational institutions (plus a Mormon and a Seventh-day Adventist school, for good measure) that are not customarily grouped together (just note the first four schools on this list):

  • Azusa Pacific University (CA)
  • Baylor University (TX)
  • Bob Jones University (SC) 
  • Brigham Young University (UT)
  • Cedarville University (OH)
    • Note: As discussed here, a group of Cedarville students have created an anonymous online magazine in which they critique the repression and hypocrisy that is Cedarville. Coincidentally (or not), their most recent article – which appeared two days before the lawsuit was filed – deals with the experiences of LGBTQ students at Cedarville. 
  • Clarks Summit University (PA)
  • Colorado Christian College (CO)
  • Dordt University (IA)
  • Eastern University (PA)
  • Fuller Theological Seminary (CA)
  • George Fox University (OR)
  • Grace University (NE)
    • Note: Grace shut its doors in 2018. If you are interested in reading about how this Mennonite school became “fundamentalized,” see here.
  • Indiana Wesleyan University (IN)
  • La Sierra University (CA)
  • Liberty University (VA)
  • Lipscomb University (TN)
  • Messiah University (PA)
  • Moody Bible Institute (IL)
  • Nyack College (NY)
  • Oklahoma Baptist University (OK)
  • Seattle Pacific University (WA)
  • Toccoa Falls College (GA)
  • Union University (TN)
  • Westmont College (CA)
  • York College (NE)

According to the lawsuit, the Department of Education’s 

inaction leaves students unprotected from the harms of conversion therapy, expulsion, denial of housing and healthcare, sexual and physical abuse and harassment, as well as the less visible, but no less damaging, consequences of institutionalized shame, fear, anxiety, and loneliness . . . The status quo, where the Department leaves such students on their own in this perilous limbo, results in concrete, verifiable, and widespread harms. Each Plaintiff has their own story of oppression to tell, and each Plaintiff represents thousands more whose stories deserve to be heard.

One of the plaintiffs is Lucas Wilson, who attended Liberty University from 2008 to 2012. As Wilson recounts in an NBC News article, “Liberty University is a ‘thoroughly homophobic institution’” that not only administers “conversion therapy in the form of a student club” – then called “Band of Brothers,” but now called “Armor Bearers” – but also devotes many classes to “’the evils of the homosexual lifestyle.’” 

In explaining the lawsuit REAP Director Paul Southwick argues that the government is unconstitutionally allowing the “religious exemption to Title IX” to be used by evangelical colleges to target “people based on sex, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity, for inferior treatment.” In this lawsuit REAP is making use of Bob Jones University v. United States (1983), in which the Supreme Court ruled that BJU “did not get to maintain its tax-exempt status due to an interracial dating ban – a policy the university claimed was based in its sincerely held religious beliefs.” According to the Court, the government’s interest in proscribing racial discrimination overrode the religious exemption clause. 

Not surprisingly, Christian Right leaders are apoplectic over the REAP lawsuit. This past Saturday Ken Ham posted this on his Facebook page:

As we at Answers in Genesis have warned, gay “marriage” was the door that opened the LGBTQ agenda. It ramps up more each day. And for those who profess Christianity who support such an agenda, “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law [God’s Word], even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9).

This lawsuit, combined with the outrage from Ham and others in the Christian Right, puts evangelical and fundamentalist schools in a very difficult position. I assume that many of these institutions will (implicitly or explicitly) concede that the religious exemption clause should not apply to racial discrimination, but that it should apply as regards sexual orientation and gender identity. 

But on what basis? In the 1980s Bob Jones University was simply repeating what millions of white evangelicals said about slavery and what millions of white evangelicals said about racial segregation, that is, slavery and segregation were in keeping with a literal reading of the Bible. If racial discrimination is not allowable – despite the raft of biblical arguments made in its behalf – at institutions benefitting from tax monies, then why is discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation acceptable at such institutions? 

What is the argument, Ken? And were the prayers of the millions of white evangelicals who supported slavery and segregation – as well as the prayers of the untold numbers of contemporary Christian white supremacists and Christian neo-Confederates – also an abomination before the Lord?

What makes this lawsuit a very difficult moment for more moderate evangelical schools – and I taught at one of them for eight years, so I know whereof I speak — is that they have been playing to two different audiences at once. Internally, they reassure faculty that they just need to wait until the older generation of evangelicals has passed, and then there will be a blessed tolerance when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity. But externally, they reassure their conservative constituency that they are holding to a firm biblical line when it comes to issues of sexuality — they are “safe schools” (thanks Adam Laats for this descriptor) that are not bowing to the decadent liberal culture.

But now the issue is being forced. The “two audience” strategy is going to be much more difficult (if impossible) to maintain. No matter how this particular lawsuit turns out, this matter is not going away. The apocalyptic moment is here.

How will evangelical colleges respond?