A federal judge dismissed on Thursday a lawsuit filed by LGBTQ students who allege the Department of Education doesn’t protect them against discrimination from more than two dozen religiously affiliated universities that receive federal funding.
Last year, the group of current and former college students filed the suit in an attempt to challenge the religious exemptions granted under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in educational programs or activities that receive federal funds.
The plaintiffs alleged that, by design, the exemptions permit religiously affiliated institutions to discriminate against students on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Judge Ann Aiken of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, Eugene Division, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, wrote in her decision that the students “sufficiently alleged” that the exemptions permit “religiously affiliated schools to use religious exemptions to deny federally-funded educational services to current and prospective students.” However, Aiken added, the students did not prove Congress’ intent behind the exemptions and dismissed the case.
“Plaintiffs have submitted no allegations of discriminatory motivation on the part of those enacting the religious exemption,” she wrote in her decision. “To the contrary, Plaintiffs argue that when Congress enacted Title IX, protections for — or discrimination against sexual and gender minorities — were ‘of no concern.’”
Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative legal advocacy group representing the religiously affiliated universities, celebrated the judge’s decision, stating that the Title IX exemptions protect “the freedom of religious schools to live out their deeply and sincerely held convictions.”
“A group of activists asked the court to strip that protection away from schools that educate the next generation and advance the common good,” David Cortman, an attorney for ADF, said in a statement Thursday. “The court correctly concluded that Title IX’s religious liberty exemption doesn’t violate any of the plaintiffs’ claimed rights.”
ADF has a long history of advocating against and litigating in cases against pro-LGBTQ causes.
The legal group representing the students, the Religious Exemptions Accountability Project, slammed the judge’s ruling and said it was considering whether to appeal.
“Because of today’s decision, tens of thousands of LGBTQIA+ students across the country will continue to be discriminated against at universities receiving taxpayer money,” the group said in a statement Friday.
Some of the plaintiffs alleged they were denied admission to or expelled from the religiously affiliated universities because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Others claimed the institutions subjected them to the discredited practice of conversion therapy.
Veronica Bonifacio Penales, a senior at Baylor University who was part of the lawsuit, said the decision “feels like a slap in the face.”
“Obviously the fight doesn’t stop here,” she said. “We’re not even going to let this deter us. If anything this is going to push us to work a little bit harder.”
A representative for the Department of Education did not immediately respond to NBC News’ request for comment regarding the judge’s decision.