Throughout his time at ORU, Hartzler, now 23, assiduously hid his sexual identification from college officers with the intention to keep away from a punishment that will jeopardize his diploma. In his junior 12 months, he was summoned to a dean’s workplace after he was reported for having his boyfriend, who was not an ORU pupil, in his dorm room. Confronted with the potential of punishment and even expulsion from the college, Hartzler acquired an sudden reprieve when Covid shut down the campus. He managed to keep away from a collection of “accountability conferences” with deans, transfer off campus and end his diploma in psychology remotely, graduating in Might 2021.

Inside three months of commencement, Hartzler joined a class-action lawsuit towards the Division of Training, asking the court docket to strike down the spiritual exemption as a violation of the Institution Clause of the First Modification, and of the scholars’ equal safety rights. The complaint, filed in federal court docket in Oregon in 2021, recounts vivid particulars from the preliminary 33 plaintiffs. One plaintiff alleges authorities at Bob Jones College combed her social media and disciplined her for refusing to disavow her assist for LGBTQ rights. A homosexual man alleges that Union College rescinded his supply of admission after discovering he was engaged to a person; one other, who felt known as to ministry and enrolled at Fuller Seminary, was expelled after only some days as a result of he’s married to a person. A typical theme, based on the criticism, is how college authorities study college students’ social media posts for proof of their sexual orientation or gender identification, or their assist for LGBTQ rights.

“At Union College, we imagine that each one individuals have inherent dignity and thus must be handled with kindness and respect,” mentioned a college spokesperson. “This doubtful lawsuit is an ill-considered effort to erase spiritual colleges by denying financially deprived college students the power to attend the school of their selection. It’s a misguided try and discard a congressional enactment constantly revered and enforced by each presidential administration — each Democrat and Republican — for over 4 many years.” (Fuller Seminary and Bob Jones College didn’t reply to requests for remark.)

Paul Southwick, director of the Non secular Exemption Accountability Challenge, which advocates for the rights of LGBTQ college students at Christian faculties and universities, and counsel for the plaintiffs, says that even college students who aren’t disciplined endure a tradition of pervasive anxiousness and worry. “These insurance policies that criminalize their identities and habits, it’s like this darkish cloud hanging over their head,” Southwick mentioned. “It causes them to have to stay within the closet, to hide, to be tremendous vigilant about their habits.” At many of those universities, Southwick mentioned, “your identification is forbidden.”

The Title IX spiritual exemption ensures that, regardless of historic advances in LGBTQ rights over the previous decade, spiritual faculties and universities aren’t required to alter their insurance policies in accordance with these new legal guidelines — all whereas receiving the advantages of taxpayer-subsidized funding. In line with the REAP criticism, spiritual faculties and universities which have the exemption acquired, in 2018 alone, a collective $4.2 billion in funding from the federal authorities. A lot of this comes within the type of federal pupil loans and monetary help, however the pandemic introduced much more help as properly. Oral Roberts College, for instance, also received a $7.3 million award in 2020 underneath the CARES Act, and another $9.1 million underneath an Training Stabilization Fund meant to help colleges throughout the pandemic, based on a federal funding database. With out federal help, many college students couldn’t afford to attend these colleges. However to take care of the circulate of federal cash with out the spiritual exemption, the colleges must amend their insurance policies, one thing they declare would eviscerate the Christian character of their establishments. (ORU didn’t reply to requests for an interview or for remark for this story.)

The REAP lawsuit arrives at a second when the spiritual proper is experiencing a surge in political energy. The motion is poised to say a serious victory in its decades-long struggle towards abortion, and Republican legislatures and governors throughout the nation are passing anti-LGBTQ legal guidelines equivalent to Florida’s hotly debated legislation dubbed “Don’t Say Homosexual” by critics, banning LGBTQ books and criminalizing gender-affirming take care of trans minors. However the lawsuit difficult the spiritual exemption represents a possible existential risk to a bedrock of the evangelical motion. Christian colleges have skilled the thinkers who’ve promoted and defended a authorized technique that dates again to the Seventies, when the early organizing of the fashionable spiritual proper centered not on abortion however on shielding Christian Ok-12 colleges and universities from necessities to adjust to racial nondiscrimination insurance policies. Christian colleges misplaced the battle on race many years in the past, however the core argument they use to perpetuate anti-LGBTQ insurance policies is identical: For a secular authorities to require Christian academic establishments to adjust to civil rights legislation is an unacceptable violation of their spiritual beliefs, whatever the discriminatory influence on the scholars who attend them.