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December 17, 2015 (CardinalNewmanSociety) — Following charges of “discrimination” from a national LGBTQ activist group, Belmont Abbey College defended its request to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) for a Title IX exemption in an interview with The Cardinal Newman Society, saying the ED’s broadening of Title IX to include “gender identity” threatened the College’s religious mission and would force the college to advocate practices that are “spiritually harmful.”

“A policy which would legitimize gender identity issues, particularly according to the interpretation put forward by employees of the Department of Education, would, first of all, abdicate the responsibility of the college community as a whole to act in accord with its fundamental identity as a community which publicly identifies itself as in communion with the Catholic Church,” Abbot Placid Solari, O.S.B., chancellor of the College, told the Newman Society.

He added that, based upon the “essential characteristics” of a Catholic college outlined in the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic universities Ex corde Ecclesiae, such a policy “would abdicate the college's responsibility as an educational and intellectual community to contribute the insights of Catholic faith and reflection to the public discussion on the issues of gender identity … would contradict fidelity to the Christian message as it comes through the Church” and “would abdicate responsibility to serve the transcendent goal of life by advocating practices which, according to the Church's teaching, are spiritually harmful.”

“The teaching of the Scriptures as it comes through the Church is clear on the creation of human beings as male and female, which is intrinsically connected in Genesis with being in the image and likeness of God,” said Abbot Placid. “Furthermore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear on the intrinsic relation between body and soul and the complementarity of male and female in God’s creation.”

Abbot Placid told the Newman Society that “gender identity issues do have the potential to harm students” because of the intrinsic relationship of body and soul.

“There is already a psychological disconnect between body and psyche in questions of gender identity. … Because human beings are a unity, psychological and physical issues inevitably impact one's spiritual life,” he said. “To foster identities which are essentially untrue will inevitably cause spiritual harm.

“Furthermore, the contemporary culture, which detaches sexual activity and expression from fruitful intimate communion, and objectifies the body, and thus the person, can lead to physical harm and danger,” he added.

Despite this potential harm, the Newman Society has documented a number of recent instances of Catholic colleges and universities promoting and embracing gender identity issues on campus, such as Georgetown UniversitySaint Louis UniversityFordham UniversityDePaul University and Marquette University.  

The psychological issues associated with gender identity confusion have been written about extensively by Dr. Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist-in-chief at The Johns Hopkins Hospital and current professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Presenting his research, Sexuality and Identity: Scientific Findings, at a conference in Rome last October, McHugh said:

The differences [between men and women] are not just physiological and anatomical, but also psychological; … These truths have become increasingly clouded today by a nonscientific gender ideology, which claims that ‘gender’ can be divorced from our biological sex; it claims that gender is not limited to male and female but exists on a spectrum; it even claims that individuals can choose to radically remake their gender according to their subjective preferences. But scientific evidence runs contrary to this sharp division between biological sex and socially constructed gender.

“There is no credible scientific evidence that people suffering from gender-identity disorder or gender dysphoria were somehow ‘born in the wrong body,’” he added, saying, “The personal distress of individuals with gender dysphoria is analogous to the distress found in other psychiatric conditions like anorexia or body dysmorphic disorder — which involve believing that one is obese when the opposite is true, or focusing obsessively on physical traits that one hasn’t accepted.”

Abbot Placid said that while a Catholic college must be committed to insuring that all members of the college community are treated with equal respect and dignity, “The college must make its policy on gender identity issues clear, so that persons considering joining the college community can make an informed decision.”

“Given the difficulties and even harassment that persons struggling with gender issues often face, there should be a sensitivity to their vulnerability and support offered in keeping with this vulnerability,” he added. “The college should offer counseling and assistance in keeping with the beliefs and teachings of the Church on human sexuality.”

The U.S. bishops issued a new resource on gender identity this month for “[t]eachers, catechists, youth ministers, family life directors, and parents” that highlights important Church teachings on human sexuality. The seven-page document is “a compilation of quotes from the last three pontificates, as well as other Church documents that address this phenomenon of ‘gender ideology’ or ‘gender theory,’ which is a position on anthropology (who a human being is) that is in conflict with the Christian one.”

Charges of “Discrimination”

Title IX of the Education Amendments was signed into law in 1972, and was designed “to avoid the use of federal money to support sex discrimination in education programs and to provide individual citizens effective protection against those practices.” The ED broadened Title IX in April 2014 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity, supposedly in an effort to protect transgender students.

“Congress did not intend, when it adopted Title IX in 1972, to reach the question of gender identity. If Congress wants to change that, they can, but it’s inappropriate for an administrative branch agency to rewrite the law under the guise of interpretation,” Greg Baylor, senior counsel and director of the center for religious schools at Alliance Defending Freedom, told the Newman Society. He added that Congress also decided in 1972 “that if compliance with Title IX would be inconsistent with a school’s religious tenets, then the schools will be exempt from those requirements that are in conflict with their religious beliefs.”

Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed 36 colleges have applied for the exemption since mid-2014, including the Catholic colleges Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C., Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio and St.Gregory’s University in Shawnee, Okla. All three of these Catholic colleges are recommended by the Newman Society in its Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College, and were approved for the exemption.

“Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity and OCR accepts such complaints for investigation,” a question and answer document produced by the ED’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) stated. “Similarly, the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the parties does not change a school’s obligations.” 

“All public and private elementary and secondary schools, school districts, colleges, and universities receiving any federal financial assistance … must comply with Title IX,” according to the document, but, “An educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization is exempt from Title IX to the extent that the law’s requirements conflict with the organization’s religious tenets.”

Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, an organization based in Charlotte, N.C., that develops “resources, programs and services to support LGBTQ and ally students on college campuses across the United States,” said he believes that the colleges that requested a Title IX waiver are being discriminatory, and specifically criticized Belmont Abbey College in an interview with the Gaston Gazette, saying the College “went out of its way to discriminate against transgender people.”

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The Newman Society contacted Windmeyer and asked for clarity on how Belmont Abbey College’s request for a Title IX exemption was discriminatory.

“Any time we create an environment that a student can’t learn, or impacts negatively the student’s learning — such as applying for a Title IX exemption to tell them that they don’t have a right to be who they are on campus as a trans-student, as a gay student, as a lesbian student — that’s wrong, and as our organization said, it’s shameful,” he told the Newman Society.

Windmeyer’s organization published a “Shame List” of the colleges and universities that recently applied for the Title IX exemption, encouraging students on the campuses to file a formal complaint with the ED OCR.

He said Belmont Abbey College likely has students on campus who consider themselves transgender or are attracted to members of the same sex, and “this exemption creates a hostile environment for those students to succeed academically — to feel welcome [and] safe on campus.” The College insists that all students are treated with charity and respect, “including those whose beliefs and behaviors differ from those of the Catholic Church.”

While Windmeyer said he respects the fact that private colleges can create and enforce policies on campus in-line with their religious mission, he doesn’t think the colleges that requested Title IX exemptions should be allowed to receive taxpayer funding — which, at the moment, is legal.

According to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, “Catholic colleges and universities had at least 39 percent of full-time, first-time undergraduates receiving Pell Grants (the federal need-based grants program for low-income students).”

However, “There are people who want to amend [the Civil Rights Act of 1964] to add gender identity and sexual orientation so that recipients of federal financial assistance would have to give up their religious beliefs and conduct in order to get federal money,” Baylor told the Newman Society. Companion measures in the House and Senate were introduced in July 2015 aimed at doing just that, under the title of the “Equality Act.”

To pass this measure into law “would be a grave violation of religious freedom that is utterly unwarranted on the merits,” Baylor said.

So while Belmont Abbey College and the other colleges that requested Title IX exemptions are still legally able to receive federal funding, Windmeyer hopes his efforts to highlight what he believes is discrimination will cause parents and students to think twice about supporting and attending these colleges.

Windmeyer, who said he is a practicing Catholic, was also critical of the Church and its approach to “LGBTQ issues,” saying the Church “has been wrong” on these issues, that “there’s a huge disagreement in the Church around LGBT individuals” and that there is room “for dialogue and conversation within the Catholic Church.”

He said he believes Belmont Abbey College “shut down that dialogue and conversation” on campus by not initiating a campus-wide discussion with faculty and students on the issues involved in the new interpretation of Title IX before applying for the exemption “because they wouldn’t have had agreement.”

“It would’ve created that conversation, that dialogue that they probably don’t want on their campus around how Catholic people feel about this issue,” he said. “That means we have to question our faith, we have to look at our faith in a really deep and meaningful way, and try to find out what would God want us to do.”

But Abbot Placid told the Newman Society he was “not aware of any ban on dialogue of the matter.”

“The proper place for discussion in the college community is how one treats any and all members of the college community with dignity and respect,” he said. “As the president wrote in his letter requesting the exemption, the College is committed to treating all people with respect, even those who are not in agreement with the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

And the proper opportunity for dialogue, according to Abbot Placid, “would have been one initiated by the Department of Education, since employees of that federal agency have made regulations binding with the force of law and supported by the power of sanctions on the people they are supposed to serve, yet with no accountability to those they are supposed to serve.”

“I don’t recall Mr. Windemeyer initiating any dialogue to ascertain whether his postulation regarding the College’s motives or the position of the College community was correct,” he added.

Abbot Placid said the matter of requesting the exemption “goes to the identity and mission of the institution, which, in the governance structure of the College, is the responsibility of the board, administration and chancellor.”

“If Belmont Abbey College presents itself publicly as a Catholic institution, then honesty and integrity require that it operate in keeping with the publicly proclaimed faith and teaching of the Catholic Church,” he said.

Reprinted with permission from The Cardinal Newman Society