Thursday, December 17, 2015

Belmont Abbey College in National News Again: Claims Catholic "Right-to-Discriminate" Title IX Exemption Targeting Transgender Students and Staff

I have shared with you the story of how a Catholic college in North Carolina owned by a Benedictine community destroyed my career as a Catholic theologian and that of my now husband Steve in the early 1990s, though we were abiding by the unwritten rules of the Catholic academy that required us to be closeted and to keep our relationship hidden as we taught at this college. In a series of postings here this past October (here, here, here, here, here, and here), I shared with you a detailed document I compiled and circulated in October 1993 recounting the story of what Belmont Abbey College and monastery did to end my career as a Catholic theologian.

Though Belmont Abbey is a small, academically undistinguished institution in an out-of-the-way place, it has managed to position itself in the national limelight persistently in the last several years, as it allies itself with movements and causes to the extreme political right and to the extreme right within the Catholic academy itself. It chose to be one of the first institutions of higher learning in the U.S. to file a lawsuit against the Obama administration's HHS mandate to employers to provide contraceptive coverage to employees. Now, as Andy Birkey reported in The Column recently, Belmont Abbey is one of nearly three dozen religiously affiliated institutions of higher learning that have petitioned the federal government to waive laws protecting LGBT students and staff from discrimination. 

As Birkey notes, these schools have asked specificially that the U.S. Department of Education waive portions of Title IX that could be applied to transgender students and staff or those who are in same-sex relationships. During this year, twenty-seven of these schools have received a waiver permitting them to discriminate against LGBT students and staff. Nine other applications are pending, according to Birkey. 

As he notes, when Title IX was implemented in 1972 to combat sex-based discrimination, Congress created a loophole for religiously based institutions to petition for "right-to-discriminate" waivers if they claimed that such discrimination was consistent with the religious beliefs of the institution. Birkey notes, 

These "right-to-discriminate" waivers were relatively rare until the last year. A handful were requested in the 1980s and 1990s, many by religious schools who wanted to ensure they could prevent women from being hired in leadership roles without running afoul of discrimination laws. 
That changed in 2014 when the Obama administration issued guidance that the Title IX discrimination prohibition "extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity," meaning that entities receiving federal funding could not discriminate against transgender and gender nonconforming people.

He also points out that almost all the faith-based schools that have recently asked for "right-to-discriminate" waivers permitting them to receive Title IX federal funding while discriminating against LGBT students and staff are in the South and West, and that conservative Christian groups are pushing schools to file such petitions via training sessions and by providing documents schools may use to prove that they have "sincerely held religious beliefs" requiring them to discriminate. 

Birkey's article appends Belmont Abbey's request (pdf file) (with a cc from its college president William Thierfelder to the Alliance Defending Freedom) to the Department of Education for a "right-to-discriminate" waiver and the Department's response permitting the school to discriminate. The school claims that it cannot make any accomodations for students or staff who are transgender or questioning their gender identities because its Catholic faith requires it to uphold "the heterosexual creation of human beings" and male-female biological complementarity, along with heterosexual marriage, as God's will for the created world. Thierfelder's letter to the Department of Education informs the Department that Belmont Abbey College will "make institutional decisions" in light of these beliefs, in the area of student housing, admission and retention, appropriate conduct, employment and hiring and retention, and other matters.

As Liam Stack reports for New York Times, the schools that have asked for "right-to-discriminate" waivers are in a number of cases petitioning for "wide-reaching" exemptions from non-discrimination provisions of Title IX that would allow them to discriminate not only on the basis of gender identity, but also on the basis of sexual orientation, marital status, or whether a person has had an abortion. Stack points to Belmont Abbey's "right-to-discriminate" petition, which specifically says that it refuses to make any accomodation for students and staff who seek to resolve the "tension between one's biological sex and the experience of gender" through gender-reassignment surgery or adoption of a psychological identity not in conformity to their biological gender.

As Stack notes, though the letter of Belmont Abbey's president to the Department of Education clearly states that the college is claiming a right to discriminate against transgender students and staff, its spokesman Rolando Rivas indicates that the college does not discriminate. As Stack also points out, "Gay and transgender activists said that argument was unpersuasive." Stack cites the response of Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan, a lawyer for the National L.G.B.T. Task Force, who observes,

It is disheartening that people are manipulating religion to discriminate against others. It is what it is: discrimination and the unfair treatment of transgender people.

Also zeroing in on Belmont Abbey College's petition to be permitted to discriminate against transgender students and staff is Patricia Miller at Religion Dispatches yesterday. As with Liam Stack, she notes that though many of the "right-to-discriminate" requests made by faith-based institutions to the Department of Education this year focus on transgender and gender non-conforming people, "some of the waivers also seek permission to discriminate against gay students and staff and women who have had sex outside of marriage or an abortion."

She also notes that right-wing political groups are driving the movement of these faith-based institutions to seek exemptions from Title IX non-discrimination regulations, and that these groups are trying to push the envelope of the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision permitting closely held corporations with "sincere religious beliefs" to discriminate on the basis of such beliefs. Her report on Belmont Abbey, in particular:

In fact, one of the universities granted an exemption, Belmont Abby College, a Catholic institution, was one of the very first to file a lawsuit against the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act. In its request to the U.S. Department of Education, Belmont Abby said it didn't support "the resolution of tension between one's biological sex and the experience of gender by the adoption of a psychological identity discordant with one's birth sex, nor attempts to change one's birth sex by surgical intervention, nor conduct or dress consistent with an identity other than one’s biological birth sex." 
It affirmed the right to make "institutional decisions in light of this policy regarding housing, student admission and retention, appropriate conduct, employment, hiring and retention, and other matters." 
No word on how Belmont Abby intends to assess if one's "conduct or dress" is consistent with one's birth sex, but perhaps after kicking out any transgender students they will go after women wearing pants or being too assertive. The Column notes that total enrollment at the affected schools is 80,000 students and that the institutions received $130 million in federal research grants and student aid last year.

And so what to make of an institution (I'm speaking here of the institutional Catholic church as a whole), which claims that it deplores discrimination while it actively seeks, through many of its organizations and representatives, to carve out exemptions to non-discrimination laws designed to protect targeted minority groups? What to make of an institution that professes to be all about mercy, while it heaps contempt on those who do not fit the norm and are already struggling, outside the context of the supposedly "safe" spaces that faith-based organizations provide them, with heinous discrimination?

At one level, I'm not at all sanguine that highlighting this latest episode in Belmont Abbey's longstanding story of Catholic-based discrimination will in any way bring shame to this college or cause it to question its eminently unChristian behavior. As we've seen with the Trump phenomenon, the more outrageously bigoted this presidential candidate becomes, the more wildly popular he is in a certain sector of the American public.

The same is true of Belmont Abbey. People close to the institution have told me over the years that I'm really wasting my time writing about it, since anything I write, as an openly gay man whose career was destroyed by this institution, only causes more dollars to flood into its coffers from the very wealthy and powerful right-wing protectors who have long made this Catholic college a pet project. Challenge Belmont Abbey's appeal to Catholic norms as it claims the right to discriminate against LGBT people, and your challenge will result in only another statement by the Cardinal Newman Society praising the school to the skies — it will only result in more publicity for the college in its target group of well-heeled right-wing donors and students, that is to say.

People have told me that the primary reason many national Catholic publications, National Catholic Reporter included, would not touch our story about what Belmont Abbey did to Steve and me in the 1990s, and the primary reason the local media in North Carolina (the Charlotte Observer is light-years removed from the Boston Globe), would not touch this story is that the school has such wealthy right-wing protectors in very high places — not to mention, the monastery owning it is wealthy in its own right, owning acres and acres of land worth millions of dollars outside a rapidly developing urban area.

And so Belmont Abbey remains in the news, and the story of what it is doing today is entirely consistent with the story of what it did to Steve and me in the 1990s, but no major Catholic publication or no mainstream media outlet has any interest at all in connecting the dots and delving into the story of a Catholic institution which claims not to discriminate, but which persistently and grossly discriminates while claiming it has a Catholic warrant to do so. In writing about any of this, I am perhaps only giving this fringe Catholic college the kind of publicity for which it hungers, as it continues to market itself as one of the few Catholic colleges in the U.S. to maintain orthodox Catholic ideas and practices.

And as the monks owning the college continue to walk in and out of their monastery door with its inscription about the obligation of followers of Jesus to welcome any guest who comes their way as if that guest is Christ himself . . . .

(Please see this additional posting which links to the preceding one.)

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