Fifteen Democratic U.S. senators, and one Independent, are demanding Education Secretary Betsy DeVos withdraw draft rules that she says will protect the legal rights of faith-based institutions and student groups.
The lawmakers, which include Patty Murray, the ranking member of the chamber's education committee, wrote in a letter to DeVos this week that the provisions could give faith-based schools license to discriminate against LGBTQ people and women. They could also allow schools with loose ties to religion to claim exceptions, they said.
DeVos' proposal expands religious exemptions in a way that undermines Title IX, the federal law barring sex discrimination on campus, the senators wrote. Critics of the Trump administration have long said it has muddled Title IX rules and enforcement.
Most of the debate on Title IX in recent years has revolved around the law's prohibition of sexual violence on college campuses. But Title IX is much broader, protecting against all forms of prejudice based on sex, including gender identity and sexual orientation.
Religious colleges, however, can be exempt from portions of Title IX that they claim conflict with their beliefs.
For instance, the College of the Ozarks, a Christian institution in Missouri, wrote to the department in 2017 to confirm that it is exempt from aspects of Title IX. Its student, faculty and staff handbooks include a statement that a person's sex assigned at birth is their gender, no matter if it "differs from internal sense of 'gender identity.'" If this declaration were included in literature at secular universities, it could be construed as discriminatory.
Federal rules don't require colleges to get permission from the Ed Department for these exceptions, but the institutions can confirm with the agency in writing that they are exempt from parts of the law. Under pressure from LGBTQ advocacy groups, the Obama administration published a database of institutions with exemptions, but it has since been taken down. DeVos indicated at a 2017 congressional hearing that it was no longer necessary for the list to be public.
The department still publishes correspondence with religious institutions about their exemptions, on a webpage, but it has not been updated with any letters from 2019.
Department spokesperson Angela Morabito declined to comment on the senators' criticism, citing the ongoing regulatory process. She said the department was still updating the aforementioned website.
In their letter to DeVos, the senators wrote that her draft regulation, which was published in the Federal Register last month, would allow colleges with only "a tenuous relationship to religion" to seek exemptions.
Some of the proposed factors for evaluating whether an institution warrants an exemption are overbroad, they argue. An institution that shares a statement saying it subscribes to specific moral beliefs or practices, the lawmakers explain, could potentially secure an exemption.
"Enforcing the proposed factors as written would allow virtually any college or university to claim an exemption," they wrote.