KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP) – Religious freedom advocates mourned but expressed hope that a Christian college in Missouri will ultimately prevail after an opening setback in its challenge to a federal order that requires schools to open dormitory rooms, restrooms and shared shower facilities to members of the opposite sex.
A federal judge in Kansas City, Mo., rejected a request by the College of the Ozarks for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to block enforcement of a February directive by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). That order bars discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in entities included under the Fair Housing Act. The HUD notice followed an executive order by President Biden prohibiting such discrimination involving federal agencies.
Sexual orientation includes homosexuality, bisexuality and pansexuality, while gender identity refers to the way a person perceives himself or herself regardless of biology.
“Unfortunately, we knew one of the consequences of the sexual revolution would be debating absurd policies,” said Josh Wester, chair of research in Christian ethics for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). “It is lamentable that anyone, let alone the U.S. Department of Justice, would push such an unjust rule in opposing the College of the Ozarks’ common-sense, single-sex dormitories.
“Thankfully, the school is resolute in the face of this challenge, and legal organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom are dedicated to seeing that such biblical views are not infringed upon by the state,” Wester said in written comments.
Ryan Bangert, senior counsel and vice president of legal strategy for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), said the Biden administration “can’t force religious colleges and universities to open up their dormitories and showers to members of the opposite sex.”
ADF, which represents the college, intends to appeal the ruling and is “confident that the College of the Ozarks will get the relief that it seeks as this case moves forward,” Bangert said in written comments. “We plan to continuing pursing this case until justice is restored.”
Biden’s executive order – issued Jan. 20, the date of his inauguration – came barely seven months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the category of “sex” in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act applies to homosexual and transgender employees. At the time, the ERLC said the president’s directive “dramatically expands the scope of the [high court’s] decision, which only applies in the employment context” and creates “a host of religious liberty problems.”
College of the Ozarks, which is located in the southwest Missouri community of Point Lookout, filed suit in April in opposition to the HUD directive and the Biden executive order. The 115-year-old private school – which provides a tuition-free education through a work program, scholarships and grants – affirms the biblical teaching that biological sex cannot be changed and bars students from living in dorms set aside for the opposite sex.
The school’s lawsuit contends the HUD order conflicts with the traditional, legal understanding of the Fair Housing Act that has interpreted “sex” to mean biological sex. In addition, the suit says the directive violates the college’s First Amendment freedom to act in accordance with its religious doctrine.
The Biden administration’s “policy forces College of the Ozarks to decide between defending its religious liberty from government overreach or violating our core beliefs,” school president Jerry Davis said in a news release. “College of the Ozarks will not stand on the sidelines while our right to religious freedom is attacked.
“We will not abandon our mission. The fight to protect our religious freedom has just begun.”
Roseann Ketchmark, a judge in the Western District of Missouri, denied College of the Ozarks’ request from the bench after the May 19 hearing but did not issue a written opinion.
During the hearing conducted virtually, a Department of Justice lawyer denied the Biden administration has targeted College of the Ozarks, the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader reported.
The HUD order was “not directed at the college and does not specifically address the kinds of issues the college has raised here – showers, or roommates,” James Luh said, according to the newspaper. HUD has not filed a grievance against the school nor has anyone else, and there is no urgent risk of one, he said.
College of the Ozarks, however, could confront “serious fines and penalties and potential liability” if it refuses to abide by the HUD directive, ADF Senior Counsel Julie Marie Blake told Ketchmark during the hearing, the News-Leader reported.
“The college need not wait for an actual prosecution or enforcement action before challenging a law’s constitutionality,” she said.
On May 10, the Department of Health and Human Services announced it would interpret sex discrimination in health care to include sex orientation and gender identity. That change from the interpretation relied on during the Trump administration threatens the freedom of conscience of medical professionals, the ERLC and other religious freedom advocates said.