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Oregon attorney general pushes to strengthen anti-discrimination laws in religious schools

Olivia Johnson

The summer before Elizabeth Hunter’s senior year at Bob Jones University, she tweeted out a message, “Happy pride to all my friends in the closet and out of the closet,” she wrote. “You are brave and I’m proud of you.”

Shortly after writing the tweet, officials from her private South Carolina-based religious school called Hunter into their office.

They put Hunter on disciplinary probation, forced her to go to counseling, and fined her. She lost her role in the student media department.

Her senior year was filled with anxiety, depression, harassment and monitoring by school officials, Hunter said in a video posted online.

Hunter is one of a couple dozen current and past students suing the U.S. Department of Education for discrimination.

“I’m asking the U.S. Department of education to narrow Title IX exemptions so other LGBTQ plus students at private institutions who accept federal money aren’t discriminated against and harmed due to their sexuality and gender orientation,” Hunter said in the online video.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum announced last week she would join the effort to call on a federal appeals court to limit the ways schools can discriminate against students on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender. Rosenblum, along with other Democratic attorneys general, filed a friend of the court brief in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education case.

Ellen Rosenblum is sworn in as attorney general for the state of Oregon on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017.

FILE: Ellen Rosenblum is pictured in 2017 when she was sworn in as Oregon attorney general.

Conrad Wilson / OPB

Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded schools. But when Congress first approved Title IX, it included a narrow exemption for religious schools. During President Donald Trump’s term, the U.S. Department of Education expanded the religious exemption. The administration also eliminated the requirement that the college or university advise the Office for Civil Rights in writing if they want to use the religious exemption, which makes it harder for students to know if a school is invoking the exemption.

“During the Trump administration his Department of Education gutted protections for women, members of the LGBTQ+ community and other classes of students that had been in place for four decades,” Rosenblum said in a statement. “Title IX needs to be strengthened, not systematically weakened. Students ought to know before they get to campuses whether their academic institutions will protect their rights or undermine them.”

The Democratic attorneys general of 18 other states and the District of Columbia signed onto the amicus brief.

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