WACO, Texas — The U.S. Department of Education exempted Baylor University from sexual harassment claims regulated under Title IX last month after the university asked the department to dismiss complaints made by students, arguing the claims were inconsistent with the religious tenets of the University.
Several LGBTQ+ students filed Title IX complaints alleging discrimination against the university.
According to Paul Carlos Southwick with the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, one student, Veronica Penales, returned to her dorm room on campus to find sticky notes that had homophobic slurs on them back in 2020.
Southwick said he visited the dorm room, meeting with Penales before filing the Title IX complaint on her behalf.
"We filed that in March 2021, as well as a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education relating to the university's religious exemption," Southwick said.
Southwick's 2021 lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education is currently on appeal by the three Baylor students he represents in the 9th Circuit Court in Texas.
"Baylor is trying to say, 'nothing to see here, nothing has changed', but that is a complete mischaracterization of the situation," Southwick said. "What has changed is, for the first time, the Department of Education has given Baylor a religious exemption for sexual harassment."
In May 2023, Baylor President Linda Livingstone sent a letter to the federal education agency, in response to Penales' complaint along with the three other students who filed Title IX complaints against the university, requesting that its civil rights office dismiss several complaints made by LGBTQ+ students, citing the university’s stance against same-sex relationships and sexual conduct.
Livingstone wrote that because Baylor believes marriage is between a man and a woman and “affirms the biblical understanding of sexuality as a gift from God,” the university should be exempt from Title IX requirements that contradict those beliefs.
Southwick said that even though Livingstone asked for the exemption from the sexual harassment regulations, she provided "no indication as to how their religious values would ever permit sexual harassment. Adding, "This is an area that we will fight back on."
"The Department of Education has given Baylor an exemption for sexual harassment," Southwick said. "That has never happened at any religious college anywhere in the country."
Southwick said the actions of the university are contradictory to its stance of wanting to protect LGBTQ+ students.
Since the religious exemption has been granted to Baylor, Southwick said Penales' complaint, which is still open for federal investigation, will be examined by investigators to determine the religious exemptions that were granted, and "they'll compare them to the complaints to see if it covers everything in those complaints."
"Then they will either make a decision to continue the investigation, or dismiss the case," Southwick said.
Southwick said a decision on Penales' complaint can be expected "in the coming weeks."
Southwick said the university also denied the charter of an up-and-coming LGBTQ+ group on campus, Gamma, which he said has been a social group on the campus for many years.
"The Baylor faculty asked Baylor to charter, the student government and most campus organizations asked Baylor to charter," Southwick said. "They refused."
At issue is whether the university is liable to the federal government for what they've done.
"They'll determine if you can receive financial assistance from the federal government while openly discriminating against LGBTQ+ students," Southwick said. "While religious exemptions may be appropriate in some cases, what Baylor has done, asking for exemption in sexual harassment cases has gone way too far."
Southwick said Baylor's ask for complete immunity from the filed complaints by students in the LGBTQ+ community is "essentially saying 'you can't look at this'."
"That makes the campus much less safe for students," Southwick said.
Southwick also poked holes in the university's claims for a religious exemption, saying that Livingstone's letter, in which she wrote that Baylor believes marriage is between a man and a woman and “affirms the biblical understanding of sexuality as a gift from God", and her claims that the Southern Baptist Convention "controls Baylor" is just not true.
"The board of regents controls the policy at Baylor," Southwick said. "They are not a religious organization, they are board members from a variety of religious backgrounds and beliefs. So I think you're going to see alumni and faculty calling out the president of Baylor saying 'This does not represent us.'"
In an email to the campus community on Monday, Aug. 14, Livingstone said there have been "no changes" to the discrimination and harassment policies at Baylor, despite the several complaints that have been filed.
"If there's no changes, there's no liability," Southwick said in response to Livingstone's email. "I think that's an intentional omission designed to confuse the campus community into thinking 'oh this isn't so bad', when it is so bad."
Livingstone said that many students throughout the country would be able to sue under state anti-discrimination laws under the same circumstances even if they're not protected by federal law.
"But unfortunately in the state of Texas, the State does not grant protections for LGBTQ+ individuals," Southwick said. "It's much more of a long shot to file a complaint in the state of Texas."
Southwick said the main focus will be challenging the University's granting of religious exemption "so that Veronica and others like her can get the justice they deserve."
A Baylor spokesperson sent 6 News a copy of the memo Dr. Livingstone sent to students, faculty and staff. The full memo is below.
Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff:
Many of you are aware of reports and comments within traditional and social media late last week regarding Baylor University’s correspondence asserting our existing religious exemptions to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).
Unfortunately, our acknowledgement from the DOE is being characterized publicly by some as an indication that Baylor will now stop or modify how we provide Title IX or other protections to students, including those who identify as LGBTQ.
This is completely untrue.
There will be NO CHANGES to Baylor’s current practices or policies related to sexual harassment and other forms of sexual and interpersonal conduct resulting from this assertion of our existing religious exemptions. Our Office of Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX will continue to investigate sexual harassment allegations or related complaints and investigate these thoroughly and fairly. We have taken and will continue to take meaningful steps to ensure all students – including members of the LGBTQ community – are loved, cared for and protected as a part of the Baylor Family.
This is a narrow, yet complicated legal matter that has implications for all religious-based universities, not just Baylor. Accordingly, we are responding to current considerations by the DOE to move to an expanded definition of sexual harassment, which could infringe on Baylor’s rights under the U.S. Constitution, as well as Title IX, to conduct our affairs in a manner consistent with our religious beliefs.
Be assured that we expect all members of the Baylor Family to be treated with respect and dignity. This institution is fully committed to promoting and maintaining an educational environment in which all students – including those who identify as LGBTQ – can learn and grow in accordance with our Christian mission and our call to love our neighbors as ourselves within a caring community.
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