The Most Forgotten Queer Folks in the US are Fighting Back Against a Powerful — and Publicly Funded — Group That Discriminates With Impunity

Baylor University's Veronica Bonifacio Penales. Image: Kevin Truong/REAP

“How do we get people to view the CCCU as an extremist organization, the same way they view ADF?”

It’s a great question that Paul Southwick, a gay attorney and the director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), put to me across the table at Paiku, a cozy brunch café in Portland’s quirky St. Johns neighborhood, which retains its historic charm despite looking a bit worse for wear after two years of a pandemic that’s closed numerous small businesses. We met in late March to discuss REAP’s work advocating for LGBTQ students and alumni of Christian colleges and universities that discriminate against them—a largely thankless task, at least where the general public and even the major LGBTQ advocacy organizations are concerned.

I didn’t have an immediate answer to his question, and I still don’t have a definitive answer, but I do find the comparison between the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) and the Alliance Defending Freedom apt. Not to put too fine a point on it, both organizations are heavily involved in the promotion of a narrow vision of “religious freedom” that can be advanced only at the expense of LGBTQ rights. These organizations claim to be supportive of pluralism, but in my view and in the views of many liberal, pro-democracy scholars and commentators, they have twisted the meaning of the concepts of religious freedom and pluralism in an effort to justify their bigotry.

Paul Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project. Image: Kevin Truong

REAP is run by queer alumni of evangelical colleges and universities who are devoted to fighting back on behalf what might just be the most forgotten and silenced subgroup of queer folks in the United States—LGBTQ students in evangelical (and LDS) institutions of higher education. Southwick’s undergraduate degree comes from the nearby George Fox University, a CCCU member school that represents the more conservative side of the Quaker tradition. He was subjected to the immensely harmful practice of conversion therapy there, which the state of Oregon now bans for minors. In early 2015, Southwick expressed his support for the then-proposed ban before the Oregon state legislature, which passed that spring.

These days, Southwick and his team are engaged in what he called a “David and Goliath” battle during our lunch, a phrasing that I, for one, do not consider hyperbolic. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I’ve used my Twitter account to express vocal support for REAP’s efforts, which include a class action lawsuit against the Department of Education that seeks “to end the sexual, physical and psychological abuses perpetrated under the religious exemption to Title IX at thousands of federally-funded schools, colleges and universities across America.”

As Southwick informed me, the CCCU has intervened in the suit, Elizabeth Hunter, et al., v. U.S. Department of Education, as have three Christian colleges represented by none other than ADF. (Two of these schools, Corban University and William Jessup University, are CCCU member institutions.) The plaintiffs, whose individual stories can be found here, have moved for a preliminary injunction, while the defendant and intervenors have moved to have the case dismissed. No ruling has been made on these motions at this point.

Before meeting Southwick in person, I asked him to give me the “elevator pitch” summary of REAP over email. He replied as follows:

REAP is a movement to empower LGBTQ+ students at taxpayer-funded, non-affirming religious educational institutions. We give these students a voice by holding their institutions accountable for the harm they inflict on them and by calling out the complicity of the government, accrediting organizations and other institutions that enable this discrimination to continue. We also support and amplify the organic student movements on these campuses.

These organic movements of queer students and allies at anti-LGBTQ Christian colleges and universities predate REAP. I have personally been reporting on them since 2016, but these movements’ existence goes back decades. 2015 marked a recent crystallization, however, as the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide sparked a backlash among conservative Christians that included crackdowns, faculty purges, and enforcement of conservative orthodoxy at evangelical colleges.

At the same time, the campus-based queer student movements at some of these schools grew bolder and more organized in their efforts for at least basic recognition and protections, although they remained underground at schools where visibility alone could result in expulsion. Where that was not the case, student efforts often came in the form of attempts to found officially recognized student LGBTQ support groups—groups that would have equal access to campus facilities and student group funding as other university-recognized student groups. The administrations rejected their applications, sometimes proffering unacceptable alternatives, such as non-affirming, administration-controlled groups.

Over time, sympathetic outside organizations and alumni began offering direct support to these unofficial queer student groups, providing consulting and information resources to help their leaders strategize about the most effective ways to advocate for their rights and dignity. Such groups include Soulforce, which now partners closely with REAP, and the short-lived Brave Commons, which fell apart due to lack of funding. 

One of Brave Commons’ founders, Erin Green, now works as REAP’s campus and alumni organizer. Reached for comment, Green noted that transgender students in particular are facing a crackdown at the moment, citing threats of expulsion and retaliation in the area of student employment.

Green’s undergraduate degree, along with much of their early organizing experience, comes from Azusa Pacific University, a Los Angeles County, California-based nondenominational evangelical school (and CCCU member) that is among the institutions named in REAP’s class action lawsuit. In their role with REAP, Green says they work with both underground and overground LGBTQ student groups in conservative religious institutions across the country, “helping them navigate the administration, the policy situations.”

In a recent case, Green worked with Justin St. George, a gay U.S. Navy veteran and current student at CCCU-member Fresno Pacific University in California’s Central Valley. A Mennonite school, FPU is not as hardline as many evangelical schools, but the efforts of St. George and other LGBTQ students and allies to start an official, university-recognized support group were rejected by the administration, despite prior approval by the student government association. 

In response, St. George, in consultation with Green, filed an accreditation complaint with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, arguing that the school’s discrimination against LGBTQ students is a violation of WASC’s standards. They also organized a campus protest on March 17, coinciding with one of WASC’s periodic visits to assess the school, which Green says “went without a hitch.” Dozens of LGBTQ students and their supporters marched peacefully, attracting the attention of local news media and presenting a petition with over 13,000 signatures to WASC.

WASC rejected the complaint, but Green believes the strategy of holding secular accrediting bodies that enable hardline religious institutions in their anti-LGBTQ discrimination has legs. Going forward, Green will be consulting with St. George about filing a more detailed complaint with WASC as well as working to push other accrediting bodies to uphold their own standards where the theology and rules of currently accredited institutions and departments fall afoul of them. 

“Currently, there is little financial incentive for these campuses to change because they receive billions of dollars in taxpayer money with little to no accountability to the students, the government or accrediting bodies for their mistreatment of LGBTQ+ students.” 
As for St. George, reached for comment, he says that LGBTQ students at FPU are “not comfortable being themselves on campus,” though they’ve found a good deal of support for their unofficial LGBTQ student organization, Birds for Pride, with off-campus organizations, including churches. Like Green, St. George sees the recent demonstration as a success, and he says that the WASC officials who received the petition “were very appreciative of our efforts and even complimented us for being so respectful and organized.”

What holds the general public back when it comes to giving the concerns of students like St. George and the plaintiffs in the REAP lawsuit an empathetic hearing, despite broad public support for LGBTQ equality in the abstract? My experience of reporting and participating in discussions of these issues suggests that many Americans simply don’t understand why LGBTQ students would be in restrictive religious colleges and universities in the first place, to the point that some feel no compunction about being openly hostile to students who “put themselves in that situation.” 

This sentiment is undoubtedly fueled by the Christian supremacism that pervades our society, but I believe it also comes from a place of ignorance that I hope many will be willing to address when presented with the relevant information.

On a fundamental level, much of the public may be unaware that the Christian colleges and universities that discriminate against LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff are currently allowed to do so while receiving massive amounts of federal funding. As REAP’s Southwick says: 

“Currently, there is little financial incentive for these campuses to change because they receive billions of dollars in taxpayer money with little to no accountability to the students, the government or accrediting bodies for their mistreatment of LGBTQ+ students. We hope to change that.” 

Expounding on the point, he adds: 

“Part of the change involves forcing these institutions to choose between accepting federal funding or continuing their discriminatory practices.”

On this fundamental level, we have a serious church-state separation concern that ought to arouse the ire of every American who supports the idea that justice is best protected by a secular government. Religious organizations that wish to receive federal funding should be subjected to the same rules for recipients of that funding as secular organizations, and if they wish to violate the rules by discriminating against members of a protected class, that funding should simply be off-limits, whether we’re talking about adoption agencies, healthcare providers, or educational institutions.

On a deeper level, however, there is very little daylight between the naive and sometimes hostile suggestion that queer kids “just shouldn’t be at Christian colleges and universities” and the patently absurd suggestion that we “just shouldn’t be born into conservative Christian families.” The sentiment that queer students “just shouldn’t be there” displays a severe lack of empathy and represents, at best, a profound misunderstanding of how socialization works. 

It seems to imply, wrongly, that the queer kids in evangelical and LDS institutions made a conscious choice to attend those schools with the goal of stirring up trouble—a victim-blaming mentality that couldn’t be further from reality.

It’s wrong, plain and simple, to teach children that something is wrong with them because of their sexuality or gender identity, as this teaching often leads to years of self-hatred. Of course, children being taught this harmful view by their parents or religious leaders isn’t something the state can directly intervene in, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s wrong. 

As a result of being indoctrinated with these abusive beliefs, some queer kids who aren’t prepared to leave everything they’ve ever known behind end up in conservative Christian schools believing that the schools might help them “pray the gay away,” only to realize, at a certain point in their education, that this just isn’t possible.

Other LGBTQ people raised in these environments, myself included, never manage to quite put a finger on why we always feel so “different” and “off” and out of sync with our social environments growing up. Having been provided no language with which to understand complex sexual and gender identities—in addition to being indoctrinated to view any kind of queerness as illegitimate and sinful—we end up experiencing delayed recognition of our queerness (in my case, at age 33). Sometimes LGBTQ kids have this awakening while attending Christian institutions of higher education.

Additionally, religious coercion is in play. It’s not uncommon for conservative Christian parents to refuse to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for any but a select set of hardline Christian schools. Without parental support through the FAFSA—the document the government uses to determine the “family contribution” to the cost of a student’s education by assessing the parents’ incomes and assets—prospective students are cut off from need-based financial aid, meaning that in many cases they cannot afford to go anywhere their parents don’t approve of. 

It’s unconscionable that our society treats legal adults this way, just as it’s deplorable that higher education is unaffordable in the first place. But such is life in these United States. And with these concerns in mind, I consider it shameful that major LGBTQ advocacy organizations like Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal apparently want nothing to do with supporting LGBTQ kids in conservative Christian institutions of higher education, whether out of cowardice, strong pro-Christian implicit bias, or ignorance.

Finally, conservative Christian institutions of higher education are funded by far right-wing donors, to which their administrations are beholden. Both donors and parents tend to expect the schools to hold the line on conservative Christian orthodoxy, meaning that fundamental change will never come without considerable external support and pressure. These donors and parents, naturally, view the schools as incubators of the next generation of culture warriors—those who will fight, and fund the fight, against LGBTQ and women’s rights far beyond the sphere of evangelical and LDS institutions. 

And indeed, the schools do operate this way. To take just one example, as you can verify by perusing ADF’s website, a number of staff lawyers at ADF have degrees from Regent University, a far right-wing interdenominational school founded by notorious culture warrior Pat Robertson himself. Regent is, naturally, a CCCU member school, which will bring us back around to the issue of why we should view ADF and the CCCU in a similar light.

Most readers concerned with the power of the Christian Right in this country will already have known what ADF stands for and will be at least broadly familiar with the record of this SPLC-designated anti-LGBTQ hate group. After all, ADF plays a visible role in highly-watched litigation related to culture war concerns, representing, for example, the defendant in the infamous Masterpiece Cakeshop case. By contrast, the introduction of the CCCU acronym above will likely have left many of you scratching your heads. But the two are intimately connected—not just ideologically, but also in terms of donor and advocacy networks.

So, what exactly is the CCCU? Billing itself as “an effective, respected, and honest advocate for Christ-centered higher education both in the United States and around the world,” which includes advocacy to members of Congress and presidential administrations “for the right of each of our institutions to practice their sincerely held religious beliefs,” the CCCU provides access to related resources, programs, and services for dues-paying member institutions. 

According to its public financial filings, most of its revenue comes from program services and membership dues, but the CCCU also receives substantial contributions, grants, and gifts, some of which are funneled through donor-advised funds popular with elite right-wing Christians who like to avoid transparency. 

According to the public financial disclosures of one such fund, the Signatry, it gave the CCCU $250,000 in 2018, a year in which the same fund channeled over $14.6 million to ADF. The CCCU doesn’t show up among the Signatry’s 2019 recipients, but many individual member institutions (including Wheaton College and Baylor University) do—as does ADF, to the tune of more than $19 million.

Because it doesn’t play the kind of visible lobbying and culture wars litigation role that ADF plays in the American public sphere, the CCCU tends to fly under the radar, presenting a “respectable” face to the public to the extent that it’s known at all outside evangelical circles. But in recent years, the organization has reaffirmed its bigoted views on LGBTQ rights issues, putting them on clear display for those who are willing to look.

In 2016, for example, the CCCU put its foot down on the matter of same-sex marriage, implementing a new requirement for full member institutions that they support a stance condemning same-sex marriage. The change came after two CCCU member institutions moved to offer the same recognition and benefits to faculty and staff in same-sex marriages as to those in straight marriages in 2015. (Both schools then voluntarily left the CCCU to skirt the formal controversy that would presumably have led to their expulsion.)

In 2016, the CCCU also directed $350,000 worth of donations to a partnership of Christian colleges and universities in California that included Azusa Pacific University, the Association of Faith Based Institutions, to support their efforts lobbying against California’s SB1146, which would have required educational institutions to disclose their exemptions to federal nondiscrimination laws to prospective students, and, as originally drafted, would have allowed students who suffered discrimination to pursue civil remedy. 

The context here, of course, is that after the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, evangelical colleges and universities scrambled to apply for, and were granted, Title IX (sex nondiscrimination) exemptions that would allow them to continue discriminatory policies against sexual and gender minority students, faculty, and staff while receiving federal funding. Unsurprisingly, in 2021, the CCCU explicitly opposed the Equality Act. 

REAP is working to hold the CCCU, its member institutions, and the U.S. Department of Education accountable for allowing vicious anti-LGBTQ discrimination to take place at schools that receive substantial federal funding. In so doing, it’s lifting up the voices of LGBTQ youth in difficult circumstances—youth that the American public and advocacy organizations should stop dismissing and start empathizing with.

At the very least, with sufficient political will, we can make discrimination costly for evangelical, LDS, and similar schools. It’s been done before, when, in 1983, Bob Jones University lost its tax exempt status after a protracted legal battle due to the ban on interracial dating and marriage that the school used its “sincerely held religious beliefs” to justify. In a fair society, others’ “sincerely held religious beliefs” shouldn’t limit the rights of those who don’t share them, and religious bigotry is—that’s right—still bigotry. REAP is bringing the fight to Christian Right institutions themselves, and it deserves our every support as it does so.