By Bob Smietana
Last year Bob Jones University regained its tax-exempt status, more than three decades after losing a Supreme Court case over discrimination and religion.
Now some other Christian colleges fear they’ll face a similar battle, reports Tom Gjelten of National Public Radio.
Those fears are prompted by three colliding trends. Many colleges require faculty, staff, and students to sign statements of faith—which often include beliefs about sexuality.
Some students, on the other hand, are more open about their sexuality—even when it conflicts with the school’s beliefs. And some Christian college students don’t see sexual orientation as a big deal.
“Millennials are looking at the issue of gay marriage, and more and more they are saying, ‘OK, we know the Bible talks about this, but we just don’t see this as an essential of the faith,’” Brad Harper, a professor of theology at Multnomah University, told NPR.
Meanwhile, college leaders worry their views of sexuality may get them in trouble with the federal government. In particular, they wonder how the government will interpret Title IX, which forbids discrimination on the basis of “sex.”
Does “sex” include sexual orientation?
Donald B. Verrilli Jr., a solicitor general during the Obama administration, hinted it might in a 2015 Supreme Court hearing while speaking with Justice Samuel Alito. The two discussed the case of Bob Jones University, a Christian college in Greenville, South Carolina. In 1983, the school lost a long court battle over its ban on interracial dating. Because of the ban, Bob Jones lost its tax exemption.
JUSTICE ALITO: Well, in the Bob Jones case the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?
GENERAL VERRILLI: You know, I—I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I—I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is it is going to be an issue.
The Obama administration later informed colleges that Title IX banned discrimination based on gender identity.
Lawmakers in California also proposed a bill that would have stripped religious colleges of their exemptions against discrimination laws. After opposition from faith-based colleges and religious leaders, California passed an amended version that requires religious schools to tell students their rules about sexuality—and report to the state any violations of those rules that result in expulsion.
While the Trump administration has backed off on some Obama administration directives, some colleges remained worried.
Ironically, Bob Jones was already moving toward regaining its tax-exempt status while the 2015 Supreme Court case was being heard.
The school dropped its ban on interracial dating in 2000. But for years, it showed little interest in regaining tax-exempt status.
Then the school changed course.
Last year, the school announced it had applied for and regained its tax-exempt status. The process began in 2014.
“Organizing as a tax-exempt entity is something BJU has needed to do for quite some time,” said Bob Jones President Steve Pettit in announcing the change.
“In consultation with legal counsel and accountants with many years of experience in assisting tax-exempt organizations—as well as input from members of the BJU community and our congressional delegation—we have reorganized and are looking forward to operating the University as a tax-exempt entity.”
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BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.