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Christian college association calls LGBTQ students lawsuit ‘frivolous’

“These students are not sinful, their identities and relationships are not evil,” attorney representing LGBTQ students says

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Photograph courtesy of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (Photography by Kevin Truong)

PORTLAND, OR. – A Federal lawsuit filed at the end of this past March seeks to nullify the religious exemption to Title IX that allows widespread discrimination against LGBTQ students at faith-based colleges and universities across the nation.

On Thursday, an Evangelical association of religious schools, colleges and universities petitioned the court to be named as co-defendant, calling the suit ‘frivolous’.

The Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), a Portland, Oregon- based non-profit filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, against the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of 33 plaintiffs from 25 evangelical & LDS colleges in 18 states.

The plaintiffs include a mix of current students (some of whom are using a pseudonym for their safety), recently expelled students, and recent alumni who suffered conversion therapy and other discipline from their colleges for being LGBTQ. 

“When taxpayer-funded religious institutions require sexual and gender minority students to hide their identity out of fear, or to behave contrary to their fundamental sexual or gender identity, the unsurprising consequences are intense pain, loneliness and self-harm,” the lawsuit states.

“The 25 evangelical and LDS colleges our plaintiffs attend or recently attended, receive billions in taxpayer funding from the U.S. Department of Education but claim to be exempt from Title IX’s protections for LGBTQ students,” said Paul Southwick, Attorney and Director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project

“Our lawsuit asks a federal court to declare that the religious exemption to Title IX, as applied to a class of LGBTQ+ students attending the more than 200 religiously affiliated colleges in the United States that openly discriminate against them, using taxpayer dollars, is unconstitutional. It is a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition on the establishment of religion and a violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ guarantee of Equal Protection under the law for LGBTQ+ Americans,”  Southwick added.

Should the exemption in Title IX be eliminated, religious schools with policies deemed discriminatory would not be eligible for federal funds.

The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) filed a motion this week with the federal court asking to be named co-defendants in the case. The Washington D.C.- based Evangelical association, which represents more than 180 Christian faith schools in the U.S. and Canada and more than 30 from 19 other countries, additionally filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

In a statement given to Christianity Today magazine, CCCU president Shirley Hoogstra said the lawsuit is frivolous and the Christian colleges and universities are clearly eligible for religious exemptions;

“CCCU institutions subscribe to sincerely held biblical beliefs, which include specific religious convictions around human sexuality and gender, and are transparent about their policies and behavior guidelines, which students voluntarily agree to when they choose to attend the institution.”

The Reverend Alba Onofrio, co-executive director of Soulforce, the non-profit organization that sponsors REAP noted in a statement,  “As a Christian minister, I believe we should all be outraged that the Word of God is being used for such widespread evil and systemic violence.”

“The toxic theologies of white Christian Supremacy have real consequences on the lives and education of LGBTQI people across the country. This isn’t about hurt feelings over being denied wedding cakes or bouquets. This case clearly shows how some Christian institutions have stolen the God of love and life and replaced good theologies with violent ones that cause harm to the minds, bodies, and spirits of this nation’s young people,” she added.

In briefs filed with the court, lawyers for CCCU write “ [CCCU] denies that any of its Christian College or University members abuse or provide unsafe conditions to thousands of LGBTQ+ students, or injure them mind, body, or soul, but rather seek to minister, support, and care for them physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Plaintiffs cite no evidence to support their allegations of abuse and harm.”

“Regarding the merits of the CCCU motion, other religious colleges and institutions raised many of the same First Amendment issues in the 1980s when they defended their racist policies on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected those arguments in 1983 in the case of Bob Jones University v. United States, and courts should reject them again now. The government is not required to subsidize discrimination, whether the discrimination is on the basis of race or on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,” Southwick told the Blade in an email Friday.

“CCCU’s motion also misuses the Bible as a cruel sword, citing verses prohibiting adultery. But what does adultery have to do with the health and safety of LGBTQ+ students? These students are not sinful, their identities and relationships are not evil. They should not be compared to adulterers and the discrimination against them should not be justified by Bible versus taken out of context to condemn them as perverse and deserving of death. True religious freedom does not harm its neighbors or its children. And a country that truly cares about equal treatment for all people should not allow religious institutions to use taxpayer money to mistreat and commit violence against the young LGBTQ+ people in their care,” he added. 

During the former Trump Administration, then U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos oversaw implementation of strengthening the religious exemption to Title IX.

“Our actions will protect the constitutional rights of students, teachers, and faith-based institutions,” Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said at the time in a press release. “The Department’s efforts will level the playing field between religious and non-religious organizations competing for federal grants, as well as protect First Amendment freedoms on campus and the religious liberty of faith-based institutions.”

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Anti-LGBTQ religious extremist celebrates death at Wilton Manors Pride

Mehta points out this type of rhetoric is quite likely to inspire violence against the LGBTQ community by one of Shelley’s followers

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Screenshot vis Twitter

HURST, Tx. – The pastor of a fundamentalist Baptist Church in this suburban Fort Worth, Texas city took to his pulpit to celebrate the death of an attendee at the Wilton Manors, Florida Pride parade this past weekend.

Pastor Jonathan Shelley, whose church is affiliated with infamous “death to gays” Pastor Steven Anderson in Phoenix, Arizona is quoted by Patheos writer and progressive blogger Hemant Mehta saying; […]”I hope they all die! I would love it if every fag would die right now.” […]

Mehta, who runs the heavily trafficked The Friendly Atheist, also noted that Shelley told his congregants; “And, you know, it’s great when trucks accidentally go through those, you know, parades. I think only one person died. So hopefully we can hope for more in the future.”

Mehta noted that the video of Shelley’s hate-filled remarks on this and other anti-LGBTQ vitriol is still accessible on Shelley’s YouTube Channel. He also points out this type of rhetoric is quite likely to inspire violence against the LGBTQ community by one of Shelley’s followers.

The Blade has reached out to YouTube Tuesday for comment but has yet to receive a response.

Editor’s note; The language used in the video in the embedded tweet below is uncensored hate speech:

In a related update from the Daily Beast, Fred Johnson Jr., who was named by Wilton Manors police as the driver of the vehicle that veered out of control killing one person and injuring two others at Saturday’s Stonewall Pride Parade has offered his “sincere regrets to all those who were impacted by this tragic event.”

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Vigil held after Wilton Manors Pride parade accident

Fort Lauderdale mayor expressed ‘regret’ over initial terrorism claim

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A vigil in the wake of the accident at the Stonewall Pride Parade took place at the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on June 20, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — More than 100 people on Sunday attended a prayer vigil in the wake of an accident at a Wilton Manors Pride parade that left one person dead and another injured.

The vigil took place at the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale.

Clergy joined activists and local officials at a vigil at the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on June 20, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

A 77-year-old man who was driving a pickup truck struck two men near the Stonewall Pride Parade’s staging area shortly before 7 p.m. on Saturday. One of the victims died a short time later at a Fort Lauderdale hospital.

The pickup truck narrowly missed U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who was in a convertible participating in the parade, and Florida Congressman Ted Deutch.

The driver of the pickup truck and the two men he hit are members of the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus. The Fort Lauderdale Police Department on Sunday described the incident as a “fatal traffic crash” and not a terrorism incident as Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis initially claimed.

“As we were about to begin the parade, this pickup truck, this jacked up white pickup truck, dashed across, breaking through the line, hitting people, all of us that were there could not believe our eyes,” said Trantalis as he spoke at the vigil.

Trantalis noted the pickup truck nearly hit Wasserman Schultz. He also referenced the arrest of a 20-year-old supporter of former President Trump earlier in the week after he allegedly vandalized a Pride flag mural that had been painted in an intersection in Delray Beach, which is roughly 30 miles north of Fort Lauderdale.

“I immediately knew that something terrible was happening,” said Trantalis, referring to the Stonewall Pride Parade accident. “My visceral reaction was that we were being attacked. Why not? Why not feel that way?”

“I guess I should watch to make sure there are no reporters standing by when I have those feelings, but that was my first reaction and I regret the fact that I said it was a terrorist attack because we found out that it was not, but I don’t regret my feelings,” he added. “But I don’t regret that I felt terrorized by someone who plowed through the crowd inches away from the congresswoman and the congressman, myself and others.”

Trantalis also told vigil attendees that “I guess we forgive” the pickup truck driver.

“But I regret that his consequences resulted in the death of an individual who was innocent and who was there to have a good time, like the rest of us, and I regret there is a man who is in serious condition … fighting for his life and there,” added Trantalis.

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Veterans Affairs to provide gender-confirmation surgery reversing 2013 ban

McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and expand access to care for transgender veterans

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The new Orlando VA Medical Center at Lake Nona (Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs )

ORLANDO – U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced his Department is moving to provide gender-confirmation surgery through its health care coverage reversing a 2013 ban on those surgical procedures.

Speaking at a Pride Month event at the Orlando VA Healthcare System Saturday, McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and take steps to expand access to care for transgender veterans.

With this commitment McDonough said he seeks to allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he added.

The process to roll-back the restrictions may take upwards of two years. The federal rulemaking process, expected to begin this summer, will include a period for public comment, spokesman Terrence Hayes told The Washington Post on Saturday.

“This time will allow VA to develop capacity to meet the surgical needs that transgender veterans have called for and deserved for a long time,” McDonough said in his remarks. “and I am proud to begin the process of delivering it,” he added.

On February 8, 2013, the VA issued a directive that stated that the VA Healthcare System does not provide sex reassignment surgery. This directive sought to clarify a previous VA directive issued June 9, 2011, “Providing Healthcare for Transgender and Intersex Veterans,” which established the provision of hormone therapy, gender-related mental health counseling, and other transition-related services through the VA, as well as a mandate that the VA health system provides care “without discrimination and in a manner … consistent with the Veteran’s self-identified gender.”

“This directive, however, does not include coverage of surgical procedures although the VA does provide transgender veterans with pre- and postoperative care.”

The outcome was that the directive(s) effectively prevented transgender veterans from a surgery considered medically necessary by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.

38 CFR § 17.38 Medical benefits package, is the specific federal code that makes provisions for veterans healthcare, which Section (b) clearly defines as; “Care referred to in the “medical benefits package” will be provided to individuals only if it is determined by appropriate health care professionals that the care is needed to promote, preserve, or restore the health of the individual and is in accord with generally accepted standards of medical practice.”

However, 38 CFR § 17.38 does limit care for transgender veteran’s stating: “(c) In addition to the care specifically excluded from the “medical benefits package” under paragraphs (a) and (b) of this section, the “medical benefits package” does not include the following: […] ‘(4) Gender alterations.'”

McDonough noted that changes “will require changing VA’s regulations and establishing policy that will ensure the equitable treatment and safety” of all transgender veterans.

“There are several steps to take, which will take time. But we are moving ahead, methodically, because we want this important change in policy to be implemented in a manner that has been thoroughly considered to ensure that the services made available to veterans meet VA’s rigorous standards for quality health care.”

In a study related to the 2011 and 2013 directives, the VA noted that research showed that the transgender population in general experiences severe physical and mental health disparities, compared to the cisgender population, including high rates of HIV, suicidality, depression, anxiety, and mental health-related hospitalization.

Studies have found that these disparities are even more glaring among transgender veterans. In a survey of transgender veterans and transgender active-duty service members, transgender veterans reported several mental health diagnoses, including depression (65%), anxiety (41%), PTSD (31%), and substance abuse (16%).  In a study examining VHA patient records from 2000 to 2011 (before the 2011 VHA directive), the rate of suicide-related events among veterans with a gender identity disorder (GID) diagnoses was found to be 20 times higher than that of the general VHA patient population.

McDonough acknowledged the VA research pointing out that in addition to psychological distress, trans veterans also may experience prejudice and stigma. About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity.

“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” McDonough said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.

“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing,” he added.

All VA facilities have had a local LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services since 2016.

“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do but because they can save lives,” McDonough said. He added that the VA would also change the name of the Veterans Health Administration’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program to reflect greater inclusiveness.

Much of the push for better access to healthcare and for recognition of the trans community is a result of the polices of President Joe Biden, who reversed the ban on Trans military enacted under former President Trump, expanding protections for transgender students and revived anti-bias safeguards in health care for transgender Americans.

U. S. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-CA, who is openly gay, issued a statement applauding McDonough’s actions.

“Veterans in need of gender confirmation surgery should not have to seek healthcare outside of the VA health system or navigate complicated processes to get the care they need,” Takano said. “VA must be inclusive of all veterans who have served, regardless of their identity.”

The Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Jon Tester, D-MT also approved of the expansion of health care offerings for trans veterans.

“Every service member and veteran deserves equal access to quality care from VA, and this includes our LGBTQ+ veterans,” Tester said in a statement. “We must reaffirm our commitment to making VA a more welcoming place for everyone who fought to protect our freedoms.”

Gina Duncan, director of transgender equality for the statewide LGBTQ civil rights organization Equality Florida, told the Orlando Sentinel that her agency was “thrilled to have allies at the highest level of government” and noted the contrast with recent moves by the Florida Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis to limit transgender youth participation in school sports.

“In a moment of fierce state and local backlash against the transgender community, this move by the Biden Administration is a reminder that elections matter,” Duncan said. “Support for transgender veterans and the lifesaving healthcare they need to live authentically is a critical component to fulfilling our nation’s promise of caring for those who’ve served.”

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington D.C. (Photo Credit: GSA U.S. Government)
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