EARLIER THIS YEAR, the president of a religious university in Northeast Portland wrote a letter dripping with contradiction.
In a February missive [pdf] to the US Department of Education (ED), Multnomah University President G. Craig Williford wrote that his school "affirms the dignity of all human beings," and that staff "believe that, as Christians, we are called to treat all people with compassion."
Then he asked the ED to look the other way as Multnomah rejects an entire segment of society. "Compassion," at Multnomah University, doesn't extend to transgender people.
The tiny, 79-year-old nondenominational university is one of a growing number of religious schools around the country asking the federal government for an exemption from anti-discrimination laws where gender identity is concerned. Basically, the school's arguing its religious beliefs don't allow it to accept or employ transgender people, but that should have no bearing on the federal funding it happily accepts each year.
That argument will probably fly. Title IX, the four-decade-old statute Multnomah wants to dodge, is a powerful defense against discrimination on the basis of sex. But it also allows faith-based schools to slide if they argue not discriminating against people "would not be consistent" with their religious tenets.
The provision's been in the law since it was created in 1972, but it wasn't until Newberg's George Fox University successfully won a Title IX exemption last year—in order to refuse a male transgender student who wanted to live in men's housing—that requests became frequent.
"They basically gave these schools a green flag when they said the exemptions now extend to gender identity," says Mat dos Santos, legal director at the ACLU of Oregon. "This is totally new territory."
Religious schools often like to keep their exemptions hush-hush. Local advocates only learned of Multnomah University's request letter after the Column, a Minnesota-based LGBT advocacy website, published a December 1 story detailing dozens of religious schools around the country that have either applied for or received the exemption since George Fox helped set a precedent in 2014.
Multnomah is the only other school in the state to have applied for an exemption, according to the Column's report. Officials at the school declined to comment on the request, but it's the second time the school's asked for a Title IX exemption. An ED spokesperson confirms that Multnomah got a waiver in 1989, when it sought permission [pdf] to dismiss gays and lesbians, along with unmarried pregnant students.
"Especially in Oregon, we kind of like to think of ourselves as a progressive state on issues like this," says dos Santos. "Then you see institutions like this engaged in this kind of open discrimination and it's just really troubling."
Multnomah, headquartered on a 25-acre campus near NE 84th and Glisan, enrolls around 400 undergraduates, and has satellite campuses in Reno and Seattle. It's a deeply religious place. In addition to a variety of degree options, Multnomah students are required to earn a "Bible degree," and you can ask faculty to pray for you online.
A school "purity policy" forbids sex outside of marriage—defined, of course, as between a man and a woman—and while it pledges to "promote openness" when a student is "struggling with inappropriate heterosexual behavior, same-sex behavior, same-sex attraction, and/or gender identification issues," it also promises students "will always be held accountable for their response to that attraction."
The school's latest request for a Title IX exemption, dated February 11, hints that Multnomah seeks to counsel gay students "to support and strengthen the individual's resolve to live consistently with Christian teaching." It also suggests Multnomah would dismiss a transgender student, if one emerges in its student body.
The school is asking to be allowed to refuse enrollment to transgender students, deny them the ability to participate in university activities or sports, and discriminate against them when it comes to student aid, counseling, and employment assistance. The school also wants permission to refuse to hire transgender faculty.
And it wants to do all this while reaping significant money from the federal government. According to the Column, Multnomah received more than $1.1 million last year in federal funding. Multnomah's exemption request is still pending, according to the ED.
If it seems like LGBT students would be unlikely to enroll in a school so openly hostile to them, it's rarely that simple.
"I look at comments and people are like, 'You shouldn't go to those schools,'" says Nancy Haque, co-director of the Portland LGBT advocacy group Basic Rights Oregon. "A lot of kids don't have much of a choice."
A.J. Mendoza knew he was gay when he enrolled at George Fox in 2009. He just wasn't prepared for how the university's refusal to acknowledge his and other students' sexual preferences would affect him.
"It isn't that LGBT people were talked about poorly, it's that they weren't talked about," says Mendoza, 25, who graduated from the school in 2013. "I didn't appreciate what living in that 24/7 can do to your mental health."
By his junior year, Mendoza says he was severely depressed and thinking about suicide. Instead, he decided to speak out. What began as a low-key email invite for allies to demonstrate for a single day quickly blossomed into an ongoing email thread—then a regular meeting at a coffee shop near campus.
The group Mendoza wound up founding, Common Ground, continues to meet to this day. He credits the community he fostered at George Fox with helping him regain his faith, and helping ease the strain on his mental health. Today, Mendoza works for Basic Rights Oregon, continuing his advocacy.
Given what he went through at George Fox, Mendoza says it's wrong that Christian universities receive public support while discriminating against members of their student body. "It's a case of trying to have your cake and eat it, too," he says.
The problem is there's little indication schools like Multnomah will stop getting Title IX exemptions. Dos Santos says the issue is worth pressing with the Obama administration—noting hopeful positions the ED and US Department of Justice have taken to better the lives of transgender citizens.
But the greatest potential for change might be at the state level. With a recent judgment against a Gresham bakery that refused to serve a lesbian couple, dos Santos says Oregon officials are showing they'll crack down on this kind of discrimination.
Title IX may allow schools like Multnomah to get federal dollars, but it doesn't protect them from local anti-discrimination laws. The ACLU, dos Santos says, would happily make that case.
"At this point, no one from any of these schools has come to us," he says. "If they did, I'm very certain we would look at it very, very closely."