The U.S. Department of Education announced this week that it would create a searchable database of every college or university that claims religious exemption from Title IX federal civil rights protections.
In 2015, 43 higher education institutions applied for a record number of waivers exempting them from policies meant to safeguard against sex and gender discrimination at public universities, claiming that the 1972 law violates their religious freedom. The Department of Education approved 22 of them, with the rest pending.
But critics say the waivers give those schools carte blanche to treat gay and transgender students with prejudice. And until now, disclosure of institutions that received Title IX exemptions required a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
According to a report released in December by the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBTQI equality, the amount of institutions seeking exemptions has hit at least 56 since 2012, spread across 26 states with nearly 120,000 students enrolled collectively.
The New York Times reports:
The waivers have in some cases involved a range of identities and backgrounds, including gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status and whether a person has had an abortion. They have exempted schools from anti-discrimination rules pertaining to employment, admissions, housing and the provision of facilities like restrooms and locker rooms.
[....] Secrecy surrounding the waivers meant that gay and transgender students, and their parents, had no way to know if their school had received an exemption, activists said.
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In late December, a group of senators—led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, of Vermont—issued a letter to the Department of Education calling for a transparency database.
"We are concerned these waivers allow for discrimination under the guise of religious freedom," the letter read. "Already, we have seen this same path used in our legal system to undermine benefits for women and used to facilitate discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity."
"At a very minimum, we believe that parents, students, and taxpayers have a right to know when institutions of higher education—as recipients of tax dollars—seek and receive exemptions under Title IX as well as the justification of those exemptions," the senators wrote.
On Wednesday, Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, said she agreed (pdf) with the senators' concerns and announced that the government would make such a tool available within months.
Chad Griffin, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said he was "encouraged" by the news.
"We have been alarmed by the growing trend of schools quietly seeking the right to discriminate against LGBT students, and not disclosing that information publicly," Griffin said in a statement. "We are encouraged that the Department of Education is answering our call for greater transparency to help ensure no student unknowingly enrolls in a school that intends to discriminate against them.
"We believe that religious liberty is a bedrock principle of our nation, however, faith should never be used as a guise for discrimination," he added.