Pepperdine has had a long history of being an unwelcoming place for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people, including being listed on the Princeton Review “LGBT Unfriendly List.” In 2011, the university denied recognizing a student-led LGBT group on campus. Then a few years later, two former basketball players filed a lawsuit for anti-LGBT harassment against the campus and the Head Basketball Coach. But now it all seems to be changing? Pepperdine may be among the first anti-LGBT universities to withdraw its Title IX exemption and reverse its stance. Or at least It seems so.
Passed in 1972, Title IX ”protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance.” An educational institution that is “controlled by a religious organization” may apply for a Title IX exemption if it “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization.” Pepperdine had originally filed a request for a Title IX exemption in 1976 that was later granted in 1985. The request allowed Pepperdine to take disciplinary action against those who were found “to be involved in heterosexual relationships outside the holy union of wedlock or in homosexual relationships” as well as exclude women from various activities.
In 2014, the Obama Administration issued a “Dear Colleague letter” clarifying Title IX and that it does protect the rights of transgender students. The national LGBT youth organization Campus Pride has been tracking the Title IX exemptions since July of 2014 when George Fox University was able to deny a transgender student housing on campus. Then Simpson University and Spring Arbor University received exemptions that same month to punish or expel transgender students as necessary.
Currently there are 75 campuses that have received and, or are pending these Title IX exemptions. Since this information was not public, Campus Pride launched the “Shame List” to openly share these campuses and to warn youth and families. This past April, the U.S. Department of Education decided to change previous policy and instead publicly release all documents associated with Title IX.
Unbeknownst in that pile of data was a letter from Andrew K. Benton, the President of Pepperdine University, on January 27, 2016 which read:
“Please accept this letter as Pepperdine University’s withdrawal of its 1976 request for an exemption from certain provisions of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972...While the university continues to be controlled, within the meaning contemplated by Title IX, through its affiliation with the Churches of Christ, the University is committed to complying with Title IX...We are thankful for OCR’s respect for the religious freedoms of religious and religiously-affiliated organizations. The University would appreciate OCR removing it from any list of universities holding a Title IX exemption or, alternatively, including this withdrawal in any public disclosure of its Title IX exemption materials.”
Curious indeed. Amidst the Title IX exemption fervor of the last two years, Pepperdine does exactly the opposite ― withdrawing its previously granted Title IX exemption ― without telling anyone. Why?
Pepperdine withdrew its ability to discriminate against LGBT students, and other previously granted restrictions, during the same time period that a fury of other religious campuses were applying to openly discriminate against LGBT youth. Bold move? Odd, maybe.
As the letter states, the President seemingly goes out of his way to ask the Department of Education that Pepperdine be specifically removed from any future lists of Title IX exempt campuses, public disclosure of materials and, or any association. Sounds like they don’t want to be associated with these other anti-LGBT campuses any longer?
Maybe Pepperdine wants to be on the right side of history when it comes to religious freedom and valuing human dignity and worth of all people. Maybe the campus realized that being against LGBT youth would be a precursor to their own extinction?
Far too many young people have had their safety compromised by the onslaught of campuses filing Title IX exemptions to discriminate against LGBT youth - especially transgender and gender nonconforming individuals. No student or family member wants to send a young person to a campus that openly discriminates or is unsafe for any student. You simply cannot attract today’s millennials and their families with a campus environment of discrimination and religion-based bigotry.
Pepperdine seems to have got that message while others still have not. Biola University, just two hours to the East, has seen protests for months now. The Biola students are still demanding the campus withdraw its pending Title IX exemption. Not surprising, the student body and faculty did not even know the campus had applied for the exemption
Whether they intended to or not, Pepperdine is signaling the need for change among its peer religious institutions. The campus currently has a visible, recognized LGBT student group called Crossroads as well as a LGBT Legal Society group. These actions and efforts should be applauded and encouraged.
There is another path quietly being forged.
Every religious campus should take a moment to pause and ask if sanctioning discrimination against any young person on their campus is the right move for the future.
Now is the time to stop negotiating the safety and worth of LGBT youth. Title IX exemptions against LGBT youth cause real harm. Religion-based bigotry is wrong. All of us are worthy and deserve human dignity.