Heller student named plaintiff in class action lawsuit against U.S. Department of Education

Tristan Campbell (GRAD), a student at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, was one of 33 named plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education with hopes to eliminate the religious exemption from Title IX, which currently allows religious institutions to discriminate against LGBT students. 

The lawsuit, filed by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), references 25 religiously-affiliated institutions across the country, most of which are Christian-denominational. 

“The Plaintiffs seek safety and justice for themselves and for the countless sexual and gender minority students whose oppression, fueled by government funding, and unrestrained by government intervention, persists with injurious consequences to mind, body and soul,” according to the lawsuit. “The Department’s inaction leaves students unprotected from the harms of conversion therapy, expulsion, denial of housing and healthcare, sexual and physical abuse and harassment, as well as the less visible, but no less damaging, consequences of institutionalized shame, fear, anxiety and loneliness.” 

Paul Southwick, director of REAP, reached out to Campbell in hopes of having him join the lawsuit. “As small as the gay Christian community is, the gay Christian college community is even smaller so everyone kind of works with each other,” Campbell explained. 

As an undergraduate, Campbell attended Oklahoma Baptist University (OBU), a private Baptist liberal arts university in Shawnee, OK. Being raised in the Southern Baptist Church, Campbell incorporated his spirituality into his identity, he told The Brandeis Hoot in an interview. “It was a denomination that I had grown up in, volunteered with and been on staff at,” he explained. Campbell wanted to attend a spiritually-affiliated institution because it aligned with his own values at the time. 

OBU is filed under the same religious denomination as the Southern Baptist Church, qualifying it for the Title IX religious exemption. 

Growing up as a Protestant Christian, the policies set forth by OBU originally matched his own, and “he spent years trying to ‘overcome same-sex attraction’ through ‘prayer, reading books, and self-discipline,’” according to the lawsuit. 

When he publicly came out as bisexual in an effort to improve his mental health, he was fired as a residential assistant and the university “administratively withdrew” him from the school without his knowledge, according to the lawsuit. The school also told him that they could not guarantee his safety due to his sexual orientation, as outlined in their student handbook. 

Campbell was subsequently forced to leave his church after being dismissed from OBU because they were under the same religious affiliation, he told The Hoot. Campbell initially filed two personal complaints against OBU due to his dismissal but was not successful in either. 

Some religious universities have the Title IX exemption, which allows them “to operate outside of federal law, while the rest of them are staying in compliance,” Campbell explained. Besides targeting LGBT members, universities also use this loophole to target divorced women and women who have had an abortion. 

“I think it’s just a reflection of the larger kind of picture of evangelicalism in the country, which is not one that is accepting of different identities and not one that is willing to do so,” Campbell told The Hoot. 

Even if the lawsuit is unsuccessful, Campbell hopes that it will be enough to start a conversation so that “people will recognize why this is an issue and hopefully put a kind of non-legislative legal and judicial pressure on the schools to change these policies.”
REAP helps to “empower queer, trans and non-binary students at more than 200 taxpayer-funded religious colleges and univerisites that actively discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression,” according to their website. The organization uses civil rights litigation, documentary film, oral history, research and public policy to work towards equality on college campuses for all students.

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