Breaking: Department of Education Grants George Fox Religious Exemption; Says College Can Refuse Trans Students On-Campus Housing

By Daniel Borgen, PQ Monthly

In April, we wrote about Jayce M., an African-American transgender student at George Fox who wants to live on campus with his friends next year, but was denied on-campus housing by the university.  Jayce, a junior at the Christian university of liberal arts and sciences located in Newberg, Ore., has medically, socially, and legally transitioned. Portland attorney Paul Southwick–of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP–filed a Title IX discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in early April, after repeated efforts to find an amicable solution with George Fox administrators, and after Jayce was denied his final appeal.

This week, the U.S. Department of Education closed (and ostensibly denied) Jayce’s complaint, granting George Fox college an unusually speedy “religious exemption,” and for the time being dashing any hope Jayce had of living on campus with the rest of his friends and classmates. Religious exemptions, it seems, are becoming the new normal. Exemptions, however, historically take years to get, according to Southwick. George Fox got theirs in just a few months. They applied for it–in secret–while meeting with Jayce and–at the time–seemingly negotiating in good faith.

“George Fox University (GFU), without telling us, requested a religious exemption to the Title IX regulations regarding housing, restrooms and athletics as they apply to transgender students,” Southwick explains. “GFU requested this exemption from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) a mere three days before denying Jayce’s final appeal to the university and a mere four days before Jayce filed his complaint with the ED. The ED granted the request for the religious exemption with surprising speed–only two months, rather than the years it has taken historically to get an exemption. Based on the exemption, the ED closed Jayce’s complaint. The ED did all of this without telling us anything about the exemption request, despite my repeated calls and emails for information and status updates. After I received their letter, a representative from ED told me he was ‘not authorized’ to discuss the religious exemption with me. Normally, the ED decides whether to investigate a complaint within 30 days. In Jayce’s case, they made us wait about 90 days, all without telling us the real reason they were making us wait. We are going to appeal the ED’s ruling.”

GFU continues to ignore requests from PQ Monthly for comment.

Jayce is simply baffled the college he knows and loves has dug in like this. “I’m shocked and disappointed that the federal government has given George Fox permission to discriminate against me and is allowing it to do so with federal funds,” he says. “But I’m not giving up. I deserve to be treated like the other men on campus. Apparently, the university disagrees, as they have made clear by forcing me to live off-campus. The university is operating under the doctrine of ‘separate but equal,’ and the religious exemption they received now gives the government’s stamp of approval to what they are doing. My own tax dollars will fund the university’s discrimination against me. I don’t understand it and I don’t think it is fair.”

So, while Jayce waits to plan his future–doing so honestly and openly, it seems the ED and GFO choose stall tactics and subterfuge. While each of his peers can make plans and move forward, Jayce once again waits–on the outside. Because it’s in George Fox’s best “religious interests”?

Not everyone within George Fox’s denomination thinks George Fox’s actions throughout this ordeal are in line with their stated theological stance. Two local pastors, Dr. C. Wess Daniels, Pastor at Camas Friends Church, and Mike Huber, Pastor at West Hills Friends Church, disagree with the college’s position:

“As pastors in NW Yearly Meeting, we urge George Fox University to provide safe housing for Jayce M,” they write. “It is our understanding that our ‘Faith and Practice’ provides no theological grounds whatsoever for excluding transgender students from housing consistent with their gender identity. As Quakers, the biblical teaching that men and women are created in the image of God convicts us that ‘… all persons have equal value and are created in the image of God’ (Vision, Mission and Values: 1). The theological framework of our Faith & Practice affirms the inherent dignity of all people, regardless of their gender identity:

We witness to the dignity and worth of all persons before God. We repudiate and seek to remove discrimination based on gender, race, nationality, or class. We deplore the use of selfish ends to gain unfair advantage, and we urge political, economic, and social justice for all peoples. We consider civil order most just when conscience is free and religious faith uncoerced (Faith Expressed through Witness: 11).

The same Faith & Practice urges us to consider: Do you speak out for justice and morality, and against oppression, exploitation, and public wrong? Do you recognize the equality of persons regardless of race, gender, or economic status (The Queries #18: 13)?

Based upon these theological convictions, we ask George Fox University to honor the housing requests of its transgender students.  Let us follow the example of Jesus Christ, and extend hospitality to those who might otherwise be unsafe and unwelcome in our communities.”

Darleen Ortega, a George Fox alum, member of Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends, a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals, and one of Jayce’s many straight allies, remains similarly confused. “I don’t feel George Fox has handled itself fairly and transparently,” she says. “Although Paul and I have spent years cultivating a positive relationship with the university, they refused to accommodate our request to meet with them informally back in the spring, when we sought to explore options short of a legal challenge. They were pursuing a religious exemption the whole time, without telling us. I am very disappointed that our years of engaging in a positive way did not yield any willingness to even have a conversation with us, let alone deal transparently with us and allow us to provide support to a student who has a very challenging path to walk.

I can’t speak for the university, of course, and indeed they refused even to participate in a conversation with me long before any legal action was initiated by Jayce.  However, that is a lot of what I find troubling. As a person of faith and a Quaker myself, I see nothing in scripture or Friends theology that justifies or even supports the university’s position. What I find in scripture, instead, are calls for compassion and kindness to everyone. And I don’t understand how one can deal ethically with someone in Jayce’s situation without working to understand his circumstances and come alongside him. There is no clearer call to Christians and no practice more fundamental to Friends.

I feel like progress is slow, particularly now that the university is refusing to even have conversations with us when a situation like this arises. My hope had been that by cultivating a positive relationship, more dialogue would be possible. Without that dialogue, change is very difficult. As for the denomination, I don’t see any evidence of an official theological stance inside Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends regarding transgender persons or how their housing needs should be addressed. My guess is that if you took a poll among people inside the denomination, there would be fear around that issue and lack of understanding, but that is not the same as a theological stance. Sadly, it appears that prejudice and fear frequently gets identified as a religious position.”

Sadly indeed. One wishes the positions and perspectives of people like Ortega, Daniels, and Huber were the norm–and not the exception. And one wishes “religious exemptions” weren’t becoming the new normal. But Jayce, buoyed by his dedicated legal counsel, will continue fighting–and we’ll continue following, supporting him every step of the way.

“To my knowledge, this is the first Christian college to ask the federal government for a permission slip to discriminate against transgender students,” Southwick says. “This is worse than Hobby Lobby because George Fox is largely funded by taxpayer money. While the government may have granted George Fox an exemption for the time being, private companies do not need to tolerate this discriminatory behavior. Nike, whose logo is on George Fox’s athletic gear, and Intel and Starbucks, who are major employers of George Fox graduates, can let the university know how they feel about the university’s discriminatory actions.”

Note: Jayce’s petition has over 20,000 signatures. Click on the link to your left to make your voice heard.


This from Basic Rights Oregon’s Jeana Frazzini: “It is deeply disappointing that George Fox would choose to deny housing to a student based on their gender identity. Studies show that gay and transgender students face disproportionate challenges in educational attainment. That’s why Basic Rights Oregon is committed to promoting equality, and fighting against fear and misunderstanding about transgender issues and gender identity in our educational institutions.”

Note: According to Too Afraid to Learn, a 2008 survey of over 3,500 Oregon college students, a hostile campus climate has a significant impact on gay and transgender students: 1 in 10 took more than five years to graduate due to anti-gay/anti-transgender sentiment; More than 60% of all students reported witnessing instances of homophobia, ranging from anti-gay/anti-transgender remarks to hate crimes.