Department of Education Recognizes Baylor University’s Religious Exemption to Title IX

The Department of Education recently exempted Baylor University from addressing sexual harassment claims involving LGBTQ+ students on account of Baylor’s asserted religious tenets. In 2021, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights received multiple complaints from Baylor students alleging the University had failed to address harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity by other students. Students also alleged the school violated Title IX when the school pressured “University media” not to cover LGBTQ+ events or protests.  In response, Baylor argued that the OCR complaints should be dismissed under Title IX’s religious exemption.

Under Title IX’s religious exemption, educational institutions that are “controlled by a religious organization” are exempt from implementing requirements under Title IX if doing so would be “inconsistent with the school’s religious tenets of the organization.” To utilize this exemption, the current 2020 Title IX regulations require the institution to state in writing that it is eligible for the exemption.

In a letter to the Office for Civil Rights dated May 1, 2023, Baylor argued that complaints for “not responding to sexual harassment claims from an LGBTQ+ student should be dismissed” because of its religious tenets. To support this argument, Baylor outlined its affiliation with the Baptist General Convention of Texas and that each member of the University’s Board must be “supportive of Baylor University’s … historic Baptist heritage.” Furthermore, the University argued that the Baptist faith plays a large role in student life and the school’s Code of Conduct. Specifically, Baylor states that “[a]ll incoming Baylor undergraduate students must also attend two semesters of University Chapel in which they ‘gather [] to worship and pray, to be taught and inspired, and to encounter God in a way that makes a difference in their college experience.'” Baylor’s hiring process for employees also requires applicants to submit a “statement of faith” in which they declare a personal belief that is “co-religionist with the University to be eligible for employment.”

On July 25, 2023, the Department responded to Baylor’s letter and determined that Baylor is exempt from several provisions of Title IX “to the extent that they are inconsistent with the University’s religious tenets,” including sexual harassment. While the Department states the Title IX provisions on sexual harassment conflict with Baylor’s religious tenets, the letter notably asks Baylor for “assurance that the belief in or practice of its religious tenets by the University or its students would not constitute unwelcome conduct under the Department’s definition of “sexual harassment” under Title IX.”

Finally, the Department reiterates that this outcome does not exempt Baylor from all of Title IX provisions, and that the office would evaluate whether any future complaints fell squarely within the exemptions.

For a more detailed overview of Title IX’s religious exemption, check out our published blog post. If you’re a faith-based school and are interested in learning more about Title IX, listen to Episode 55: Title IX Considerations with Faith-Based Schools,” a conversation with Brittany Gates, an ICS Title IX and Equity Specialist and ICS Founder/CEO Courtney Bullard on our podcast page.