The College of The Ozarks, a small Christian college Forbes dubbed the “Bible Belt Ivy,” is suing the Biden administration in federal court. The suit challenges a February executive order issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that ensures LGBTQ people are protected from discrimination in federally funded housing. Since colleges get government money through student loans, grants and contracts, they are subject to fair housing laws.
The college of 1,500 students in Point Lookout, Missouri, is being represented by lawyers at the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a powerful Scottsdale, Arizona-based nonprofit advocacy group for conservative legal causes. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights nonprofit in Montgomery, Alabama, has designated the ADF a hate group.
“ADF was founded in 1993 for the purpose of keeping the doors open for the gospel,” says the group’s vice president for legal strategy Ryan Bangert. In its suit for the College of the Ozarks, ADF aims to protect the school’s ability to prevent transgender students from living in dormitories that align with those students’ gender identity. “The school believes that the bible teaches that people are created as males and females,” he says. “We’re designed by God in that way and the school honors that by housing men and women separately.”
A 2018 Forbes feature describes how College of the Ozarks achieved a ranking of No. 270 on Forbes’ top colleges list. The school’s 91% admissions yield (the percentage of admitted students who decide to attend) is higher than Harvard’s 82% and its $272,000 endowment per student is greater than Georgetown’s and NYU’s. It attracts students in part because tuition is free. Known as “Hard Work U,” it requires all enrollees to commit 15 hours a week to a campus job.
Colleges have become a battleground for LGBTQ rights. Earlier this week the NCAA, the nonprofit that governs college sports, threatened to pull championship games from schools in states that pass anti-LGBTQ laws. And in late March, LGBTQ students filed a federal class action against the U.S. Department of Education claiming that they had suffered discrimination at 25 Christian colleges including giant Liberty University, founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell. The plaintiffs claim that the colleges are violating their Constitutional right to be free of discrimination while the schools maintain that they are entitled to a religious exemption from the federal civil rights law known as Title IX.
Liberty, a school of more than 100,000 students in Lynchburg, Virginia, has been embroiled in its own scandal over the conduct of Jerry Falwell, Jr., who resigned as president last year. Yesterday Liberty filed a $10 million suit against Falwell, claiming he violated his contract and breached his fiduciary duty when he withheld damaging information from the board of trustees.
The ADF’s Bangert says the LGBTQ litigation stems from the landmark June 2020 Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia. The Court held that Title VII of the federal civil rights law protects lesbian, gay and transgender workers. “It’s very clear the Court did not intend it to be a sweeping rearrangement of American society and apply to dorm rooms,” he says.
Paul Carlos Southwick, who represents the LGBTQ student plaintiffs in the Constitutional law challenge to discrimination at Christian universities, says he worked at ADF “when I was a fundamentalist closeted person myself.” He says the ADF’s representation of College of the Ozarks “all comes down to money” because Christian colleges so fear being cut off from federal funds. Given that 75% of Americans support LGBTQ rights, he says, the religious colleges “want to get these cases before the Supreme Court before it’s too late.” Though the Court ruled for the LGBTQ plaintiffs in Bostick, since then Ruth Bader Ginsburg was replaced by Amy Coney Barrett, a devout Catholic whom the ADF paid five times to speak at a summer training program for Christian law students, starting in 2011.
A further twist to the College of the Ozarks suit: “Their approach to sex and gender completely denies the very idea of someone being transgender or gender identity being something that’s real,” says Southwick. “There could wind up being a ridiculous circumstance where you have a young transgender male on testosterone looking quite masculine and being attracted to women, living with a whole bunch of college girls. Is that really what they want?”