Two Baylor students join lawsuit against US Department of Education

Shreveport, La., sophomore Veronica Penales, along with 32 other LGBTQ students across the country, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education earlier this week for giving Title IX religious exemptions to taxpayer-funded, private religious colleges and universities. Christina Cannady | Photographer

By Emily Cousins | Staff Writer

Thirty-three LGBTQ students at various Christian colleges across the United States, including two Baylor students, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education earlier this week for giving Title IX religious exemptions to taxpayer-funded, private religious colleges and universities.

The lawsuit was officially filed on Monday by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) against the U.S. Department of Education. The suit states that LGBTQ students are seeking “safety” and “justice” for the oppression they have faced.

“The Department’s inaction leaves students unprotected from the harms of conversion therapy, expulsion, denial of housing and healthcare, sexual and physical abuse and harassment, as well as the less visible, but no less damaging, consequences of institutionalized shame, fear, anxiety and loneliness,” the lawsuit argues.

Baylor released the following statement in response to the lawsuit:

“Baylor University maintains certain rights to exercise its freedom of religion under the U.S. Constitution and other federal laws without interference by the government. This includes exemptions for religiously affiliated institutions that uphold traditional religious beliefs about marriage and sexuality. As part of our Christian mission, Baylor continues to strive to provide a loving and caring community for all students, including our LGBTQ students.”

Paul Carlos Southwick, director of REAP and one of the lawyers on the side of the plaintiffs, said the goal of the suit is for a federal judge to issue a declaration stating that religious exemption under Title IX is unconstitutional, which would allow the Department of Education to fully enforce Title IX at all taxpayer-funded schools.

Shreveport, La., sophomore Veronica Penales, co-author of the “No Crying on Sundays” bill passed by Baylor Student Government, and Los Angeles senior Jake Picker, vice president of Gamma Alpha Upsilon, are the two plaintiffs from Baylor.

“As the vice president of Gamma, I feel it’s my responsibility to represent our queer students … to the best of my capability,” Picker said. “A golden opportunity to be a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the Department of Education seemed like too good an offer to pass up, so I jumped on it in the hope that I could assist in making life easier for future generations of queer students who will come through Baylor, so they can feel more comfortable being themselves and hopefully create an environment where the administration can no longer discriminate against our students.”

Penales said Baylor has always found a reason to say no to Gamma Alpha Upsilon’s persistent requests to be chartered for the past 10 years.

“When I started this whole thing, my first step was obviously trying to get Gamma chartered,” Penales said. “It started as a small pebble and grew into something big. I started out just as a senator trying to advocate for my own rights, the rights of my peers. That’s essentially all that it was. But now, it’s this nationwide thing, which is really exciting because I feel like it finally has the potential to make Baylor leadership actually listen to what’s going on, and it’s going to be harder for them to keep silent.”

On Tuesday, the chair and vice chairs of the Board of Regents met with Faculty Senate chair Matt Cordon, Student Body President Sutton Houser and President of Gamma Alpha Upsilon Emma Fraley to discuss the recently passed resolution and bill in the Faculty and Student Senates supporting the chartership of Gamma Alpha Upsilon.

This meeting had been planned prior to the announcement of the lawsuit.

Cordon wrote in an email that the meeting was “unprecedented” and “remarkable,” but did not want to speak about specifics.

Fraley said she felt like the regents present in the meeting were truly trying to understand why Gamma Alpha Upsilon should be chartered.

“A lot of the student voices were able to provide some insight as to some of the daily struggles that queer students have on this campus and why chartering a student LGBTQ+ organizations such as Gamma would really help alleviate those pressures,” Fraley said.

Penales said she was not invited to speak at the meeting, even though she co-authored the bill calling for Gamma Alpha Upsilon to be chartered.

“The senators who presented this bill weren’t even invited,” Penales said. “It felt like a slap in the face to know that you kind of created this table for you to sit at and speak, and you still don’t have a seat at your own table. I’ve gotten used to having to bring my own seat at every single table, but to know that there isn’t a spot for you still sucks, especially when you created the space to talk starting with your bill.”

Penales said she hopes this lawsuit will push Baylor to follow their policy of diversity and inclusivity.

“Nothing happens when we report discrimination,” Penales said. “We’re just referred to the counseling office or were told this or that from our chaplains. All of that is great. All of that can be helpful, but it’s not enough. So that just goes back to the question: Are Baylor’s simple steps towards caring for their LGBTQ students enough at this point? I don’t think right now what we’re doing is enough. So there has to be more.”

Picker said Baylor cannot avoid taking a clear stance on the LGBTQ community forever.

“Baylor will be put in a spot where it either has to choose to continue to receive federal funding and discontinue the discrimination against students based on their sexuality and gender identity,” Picker said. “Or there’ll be a spot where they have to deny federal funding and continue to discriminate against these students … I’m hoping that Baylor will make the decision to charter Gamma. Hopefully, before the lawsuit wraps up because it might take quite a while in the courts, but it’s my hope that it’ll force Baylor to open their arms to us and affirm us, or at least let us organize in an official capacity.”