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Christian conservatives are trying to turn bigoted policies into higher education law

Discrimination cannot be disguised as religious freedom

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

The dedication ceremony of the LGBTQ Rainbow Freedom Flag at The Stonewall National Monument, marking the first time the LGBTQ Rainbow Flag will be displayed permanently in New York City.

The dedication ceremony of the LGBTQ Rainbow Freedom Flag at the Stonewall National Monument, marking the first time the LGBTQ Rainbow Flag will be displayed permanently in New York City.

As a descendant of enslaved Africans who were told that Christianity justified their captivity, my eyes are wide open. I see how religion is used to not only subjugate individuals but also maintain social hierarchy. Based on history, we must assume the demonizing of the lesbian, bi-sexual, gay, transgender and queer (LBGTQ) community isn’t simply about morality and faith; it’s also about creating laws and a culture that empowers the “faithful” at the expense of others.

Late last year, House Republicans proposed legislation that, if passed, would codify discrimination into the Higher Education Act (HEA), the federal law that governs colleges and universities. Civil rights groups eventually found in the more than 500-page Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform Act, or PROSPER Act disturbing similarities to cases featuring private business owners who argue they have the right to deny services on the grounds that it would compromise their faith. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on one of them this past December in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which a baker refused to make a same-sex couple a custom wedding cake.

If the House version of the bill were passed, “religious colleges would be able to bar openly same-sex relationships without fear of repercussions; religious student groups could block people who do not share their faith from becoming members, and controversial speakers would have more leverage when they want to appear at colleges,” according to a New York Times analysis.

The bill has been out of committee for more than a month, and as it goes before senators, lobbyists are pressuring them to strike language that is clearly at odds with the deeply held values of most postsecondary institutions: academic freedom, diversity and democracy. More importantly, colleges have a moral obligation to protect all of its students, including those who identify as LBGTQ.

Two clauses (among many) of PROSPER are riling civil rights groups. One would permit faith-based institutions to prohibit same-sex relationships among students and the other would allow student clubs to restrict membership to those of the same faith. Keep in mind that colleges and universities are already permitted to have certain restrictions on how students can behave socially on campus. For instance, the Christian College of the Ozarks, like some others, explicitly forbids “touching, caressing, and other physical conduct of a sexual nature with a person of the same sex” in its handbook. Several colleges forgo financial aid to maintain their autonomy, including the right to prohibit (read: discriminate against) same-sex relationships. Colleges with deep religious traditions that run counter to federal anti-discrimination policies can apply for exemptions to avoid having their tax-exempt status revoked and to maintain their ability to take federal financial aid.

However, when universities use federal dollars (that come from diverse taxpayers, including same-sex couples), we should expect them to be subject to the people’s laws.

Related: When black history isn’t relegated to a single month

The second problem with PROSPER, according to critics, is the amendments would eliminate the government’s ability to revoke an institution’s tax-exempt status and forbid students from using their federal financial aid for that college if it violated federal law. Consequently, it would give faith-based colleges immunity from the federal government’s chief enforcement and accountability tool to ensure that postsecondary institutions follow the rule of law.

Religious colleges may say they are under God, but they should not be above the law.

They offer their faith as justification for their support of these hateful provisions.

But if we had forgotten the invocation of religion to rationalize slavery, we were reminded anew with more recent examples: evangelicals’ support of failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, whose racism was widely known, and their fêting of President Donald Trump in the aftermath of his comments on the Charlottesville rally, when he referred to neo-Nazis as “fine people.” We all know that the parts of the PROSPER Act that pander to religious colleges are not about respecting institutional autonomy or religious freedom. They are not about morality. We’ve been down this ugly road before.

The history books are clear on how clergy and lawmakers worked together to justify slavery, Jim Crow, misogyny and war. Now we have Christian colleges caping for bigoted politicians who promote a similar warped worldview. It is thanks to people who disagreed with bigoted ideas that we know how faulty they are today; diversity of thought elevated this knowledge. And once your eyes have been opened, there’s no closing them again. Though a rash of new laws have attempted to legalize discrimination against LBGTQ people, that gig’s up. You can’t call for discrimination against LBGTQ friends, family and lovers — people won’t stand for it anymore. The Senate must strip the religious garb from what is, at root, hateful intent. Remove these discriminatory provisions.

“These provisions have no place in legislation meant to open the doors of opportunity for all students, no matter their background,” said David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), a civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of LBGTQ people, in a statement. “Instead of strengthening the support provided to institutions of higher education to provide academic, residential and communal spaces that are inclusive, safe and supportive, the Republicans in the House are pushing an extreme bill that will undoubtedly open the door to discrimination in the name of religion.”

Amen. In addition, evangelicals’ conflation of faith, racism and homophobia is revealing Christian churches and colleges to be sanctuaries for bigots. After you kick out gays, suppress women’s power in the church, and minimize slavery by suggesting that the introduction of Christianity was positive, what kind of college do you really have? What kind of church are you left with? Discrimination is a self-defeating endeavor. The extent to which you have to hawk hate as religion not only erodes the profundity of religion, it eventually deems any kind of difference intolerable, fracturing the very congregations you’re trying to mobilize from the inside out.

Related: If black lives matter, so do historically black colleges and universities

Instead of placing faith in exclusion, we should be deploying the principles of diversity and inclusion to improve education and religion.

“In the nation’s history, when religion was used to expand rights, not restrict them, the nation is better for it,” activist and recording artist Rev. Osagyefo Sekou told me.

Bayard Rustin, a gay black man, was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. The lesbian playwright Lorraine Hansberry elevated the discourse on race relations with her art and was the first black female author to have a play performed on Broadway. Barbara Jordan, also a lesbian, was the first African-American woman to deliver a keynote at the Democratic National Convention, the first African-American member of the Texas Senate post-Reconstruction and the first black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. LBGTQ leaders have helped make our country better — just as straight black people, and women, and Muslims have. And when religious leaders recognize the gifts that God affords us, we all benefit.

I hope and pray that those who feel compelled to restrict the liberties of others based upon religion come to believe that the rights associated with a free society are not only constitutionally given — they are God-given, too.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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