Baylor University’s exemption from the anti-sexual harassment provisions of a United States federal education law has left members of the LGBTQIA+ community feeling as if the university has turned its back on them.
The university, which bills itself as a “nationally ranked Christian university” with 15,000 students on its campus in Waco, Texas, was granted the exemption to Title IX of the Education Act of 1965 by the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (DOE-CR).
The exemption request followed a human rights complaint filed by then sophomore Veronica Bonifacio Penales in 2021 with the help of the Portland, Oregon-based Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP).
The complaint alleged that she had been harassed, including by having sticky notes saying “f-a-g” pasted to her dorm room door, because she is a member of the university’s LGBTQIA+ community.
Penales, who graduated in June, was open about her sexuality at Baylor even though it is an avowedly Baptist institution; she was active on campus, promoting LGBTQIA+ rights.
On 6 April 2021, Baylor’s student newspaper, the Baylor Lariat reported her saying that after a friend posted on Instagram a picture of her with a temporary rainbow painted on her thigh, she received replies with the hashtags “#NotMyGoodBaptistUniversity” and “#NotMyGoodChristianUniversity”. The worst hashtag, however, she said, removed the “l” from her hashtag “#Flagrunner”. “So it said just the word,” she said.
“I am saddened by Baylor’s lack of integrity and accountability to their students,” Penales said in a media release issued by REAP on 11 August 2023. “I know many will not feel safe returning to campus [this fall], and rightfully so. If Baylor believes it has a religious liberty right to allow us to be harassed there truly is no protection left for us.”
For his part, Paul Carlos Southwick, REAP’s director, said: “This unprecedented move makes Baylor unsafe for LGBTQIA+ students and is truly shocking. For the first time in Title IX’s history, a federally funded university has been given special permission, by the Biden Administration no less, to allow its LGBTQIA+ students to be sexually harassed. Any reasonable person can see that this coddling of the religious extremists has gone too far.”
In a statement to the Texas Tribune, Baylor’s assistant vice-president of media and public relations Lori Fogelman pushed back against the charge that the university was turning its back on its LGBTQIA+ students.
Fogelman said that the reports on the exemption wrongly characterised it as a “broad based exemption to sexual harassment”.
In an open letter to the university community Dr Linda A Livingstone, Baylor’s president, tried to assure students, faculty and staff that it was “completely untrue” that “Baylor will now stop or modify how we provide Title IX or other protections to students, including those who identify as LGBTQ.
“There will be NO CHANGES [emphasis in the original] to Baylor’s current practices or policies related to sexual harassment and other forms of sexual and interpersonal contact resulting from the 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,” she stated.
“We have taken and will continue to take meaningful steps to ensure that all students – including members of the LGBTQ community – are loved, cared for and protected as a part of the Baylor family.”