Christian education in a time of gender confusion
Changing federal interpretations of biological sex raise new challenges for Christian schools
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Can a religious school act like a religious school? That question ought to be as rhetorical as the old refrain, “Is the Pope Catholic?” Yet in some instances, schools have actually had to take legal action to get to yes on the question of their freedom to operate consistent with their religious beliefs. On Sept. 20, for example, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in a lawsuit against Charlotte (N.C.) Catholic High School because the school requires teachers to uphold Roman Catholic teaching with respect to marriage.
Religious freedom protects faith-based schools’ exercise of their beliefs in their community practices. Some policy changes are presenting new challenges to that freedom, however. That has potential implications for Christian educational institutions at all levels—including K-12 schools, colleges, and graduate programs. An issue of particular concern is the expanded interpretation of long-standing federal non-discrimination policy to include gender identity.
Immediately after President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, the administration announced that it would interpret federal laws prohibiting sex discrimination to also cover sexual orientation and gender identity. That included Title IX, a provision in federal statute that bans sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs. Over the last 50 years, Title IX had became known for opening the door to women’s sports, especially at the college level. Now the Biden policy has instead made way for biological males to compete against women in those same programs, defeating the original purpose.
Nearly all institutions of higher education receive direct government grants or federal financial aid to students and are therefore subject to Title IX policy. However, Title IX contains a robust religious exemption. By claiming this exemption, Christian schools can maintain policies in keeping with their Biblical belief in God’s good design for human beings, born male and female.
Another example of shifting policy is the interpretation of the Fair Housing Act (FHA), a federal law that, among other things, applies to college dorms. The Biden administration determined early in 2021 that FHA’s nondiscrimination policy would be interpreted to include sexual orientation and gender identity. In the case of campus housing, the new policy would make single-sex dorms admit members of the opposite sex.
These administrative actions by federal agencies are examples of piecemeal steps toward the comprehensive goal of the Equality Act introduced in Congress. That proposed bill would add sexual orientation and gender identity to federal non-discrimination policy government-wide. While the Equality Act has stalled, the Biden administration has actively pursued the same agenda through federal agencies, end-running the legislative process.
Recent court decisions show how the effect of these new interpretations could be magnified to affect a far greater number of educational institutions. Title IX only applies to schools that receive federal funds. But in a troubling development during 2022, two federal courts—one in Maryland and one in California—decided that tax-exempt status is the equivalent of federal financial assistance. This means that whether or not a school receives federal funds, it would be subject to all the policies that apply to recipients of such funding, including myriad compliance requirements. These court decisions are limited in scope at present but if affirmed on appeal or replicated elsewhere the consequences would be vast for non-profit institutions.
Christian schools need to be clear about their religious identity in order to navigate the confusion over new gender-related policy. When conflicts reach legal action, the answer to the question about whether a religious school is free to act like one will in part depend on whether that school is in fact acting as a religious school. When courts weigh the need for an accommodation to a generally applicable law or consider whether an existing exemption applies, religious institutions need to be able to show confessional consistency across their policies and procedures. Schools’ employment and student conduct policies, for example, should reflect their religious convictions.
More importantly, the integrity to practice what they preach is a matter of Christian witness. Christian schools should take steps to review how their operations express their beliefs. Knowing where they stand now will shape how they stand if challenged in the future.
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