Dordt community responds to Title IX lawsuit against Department of Education

Zac VanderLey– Staff Writer

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“Dordt is facing an existential crisis,” said Dordt University professor Donald Roth in response to the title IX lawsuit as it pertains to the university. 

Elizabeth Hunter, et al. v. U.S. Department of Education includes two plaintiffs currently attending Dordt—junior Lauren Hoekstra and senior Avery Bonestroo. It was filed on March 29 by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) in the U.S. District Court in Oregon. The lawsuit states that schools who receive federal funding should not be able to discriminate against LGBTQ students, even if the discrimination is based in a religious conviction.

The lawsuit is not filed against Dordt, but if  it was, or another lawsuit similar to it, were to pass the Supreme Court—or if the Equality Act as written was to pass the Senate—Dordt would be forced into change in some way or form. 

In Roth’s eyes, Dordt has, on the surface, two ways of moving forward in the long-term future: either virtually eradicate all moral policy based on sexuality, marriage, and anything not specifically criminal to maintain federal funding (grants, research loans, and financial aid for students), or maintain all the spiritually-founded moral code and potentially risk losing accreditation, federal funding, and its tax-exempt status.

If any gender or sexuality-based rulings were to impact Dordt in the near future, President Hoekstra and Dordt administration are committed to ensuring students have a home at their university. Though, if federal funding were removed from the school, students would lose around 1.4 million dollars in Federal Pell Grants along with the ability to take out Stafford loans (direct student loans), which account for 5.5 million dollars of tuition money a year, and PLUS loans, which account for 2.2 million dollars in tuition money a year. Thus, the base pay for each student would increase were this lawsuit or the Equality Act to win in court. 

On April 1, three days after the filing of the lawsuit, the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) stated they were reviewing the lawsuit. They explained how they hold religious convictions and the ability to teach them at private schools in high regard. They also want students to feel safe–especially LGBTQ persons. In this context, there is no tolerance for bullying, harassment, or assault of any kind, the CCCU wrote, and they hope to learn and grow from their review. 

Dordt University is no stranger to engaging with the federal government. In 2012, in the case Dordt College v. Sebelius, they sued the Department of Health and Human Services. At a surface level, the suit was a stand against abortion made by Dordt and other Christian schools through their desire to refrain from dispersing “morning-after” pills as part of faculty healthcare plans. The greater purpose of the suit, though, according to President Hoekstra was to maintain the underlying Founder’s Vision of Dordt regarding the importance of allowing religious organizations to exist outside the church with their religious convictions. 

This vision of allowing religious people to be educated their own way before entering different spheres of the world is, once again, being called into question by the title IX lawsuit.

“The American tradition has allowed religious organizations to educate people and then to enter society,” Dordt University President Erik Hoekstra said. “This lawsuit contends that this is no longer in the interest of the American people.”

This lawsuit comes on the heels of a recent administration change and an executive order released by President Joe Biden on March 8. The order, which also denounces any form of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, set in motion a review from the Secretary of Education of schools or institutes that receive federal funding. 

“The Secretary of Education shall consider suspending, revising, or rescinding… those agency actions that are inconsistent with the policy set forth in section 1 of this order as soon as practicable and as appropriate and consistent with applicable law,” the executive order read.

In particular, the lawsuit filed against the Department of Education targets the religious exemption to Title IX that has allowed institutions like Dordt to discriminate on the basis of sex or gender. 

“Here, what the religious exemption to Title IX is doing is, it really targets people based on sex, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity for inferior treatment,” Paul Southwick, the director of REAP, said in an article by NBC News.

Southwick and many others involved in the prosecution point towards an older court case for support. In 1983, Bob Jones University v. United States established that Bob Jones University (and other potential universities), that prohibited interracial dating and marriage based on fundamentalist Christian beliefs, would lose their tax-exemption for racial discrimination. 

“Not all burdens on religion are unconstitutional,” the court said in response to the decision.

However, the direct comparison between racial ethics and sexual ethics creates further discussion. 

“Sexual ethics and marriage have historically been rooted in the Christian church,” Roth said.

While the church has historically held more consistent views on marriage based upon the Bible, the views of racial prejudice, according to Roth, have historically come from more secular sources such as Social Darwinism or political nationalism.

Lauren Hoekstra, one of the plaintiffs in the case and a junior at Dordt, has primarily received positive feedback on campus since becoming a part of the lawsuit. She has been asked questions, which she noted are “really good” and “really lovely.” The pain and hurt Hoekstra has felt throughout her years at Dordt because of her identification as queer, along with her desire to protect others, has led her to becoming part of the lawsuit. 

“God has given me a gift of speaking out against wrong,” Lauren Hoekstra said. 

She continued to express her love of Dordt and the friends she has made throughout her time on campus. For her, transferring never seemed like an option due to the difficulty of applications and the uncertainty of how credits would carry over. Because of this, Hoekstra decided to instead try and make Dordt a better place. 

“I love Dordt, but it is painful to exist,” Hoekstra said, “It’s like an abusive household where there is still love for the parents, so work is done to make it better.” 

Avery Bonestroo, a senior theater major at Dordt and another plaintiff in the lawsuit identifies as genderfluid and bisexual. They believed they would be expelled or placed into conversion therapy if they openly shared their desire to legally change their name or have a relationship with a woman, according to REAP. 

“The campus climate at Dordt is not safe or supportive for queer and trans students,” Bonestroo said in a statement on REAP’s website.

“To my knowledge, Dordt never has provided, nor recommended conversion therapy—including what is sometimes termed ‘reparative’ therapy for any of our students, nor would we anticipate doing so in the future,” President Erik Hoekstra said. 

In President Hoekstra’s time serving at Dordt, to his knowledge, no students have been dismissed from the college for dating behaviors related to homosexuality. 

Bonestroo and Lauren Hoekstra both have stated experiencing homophobic activity on campus from students as well as professors. Roth was quick to acknowledge there certainly have been hurtful words and wrongful actions. He wondered, though, if the professors saying gay students were ‘going to hell’ was a direct quote. This reference appeared in Exhibit N of the lawsuit in which Hoekstra details her experience as an LGBTQ student at Dordt, “…professors have taught that people who practice homosexuality will burn in hell.”

“Students say awful things to one another. Not everyone is grown up and that should be dealt with,” Roth said. “But that doesn’t change the commitment to the moral factor.” 

In Roth’s eyes, while Dordt hasn’t hidden its character, it should be clearer on its spiritual convictions. He explained, specifically in the context of sexuality, the focus of Christian morality is on the desires of marriage—not the hatred of LGBTQ persons.

The lawsuit—or one like it—will most likely take a couple years to process. According to Roth, it is an issue that will eventually be resolved at the Supreme Court level. 

“These cases will provoke the question of how the courts look at the First Amendment,” Roth said. 

Roth, along with other Dordt students and faculty, believe the university should maintain its long-held spiritual convictions on marriage and sexuality. Others on campus believe the university should be willing to change in some way. 

“I think, whether or not you agree on homosexuality, the handbook could be updated to be more supportive,” Ellie Rynders, a junior secondary education and history major, said.

Rynders and her friend group are supportive of the lawsuit, although, she acknowledged they feel in the minority at Dordt. 

A group of students at Dordt, who chose to remain anonymous, are unsure of what the plaintiffs hope to get out of the lawsuit. 

“Dordt won’t change their beliefs for money, so tuition is just going to go up,” said a student from the group.

The anonymous students claim to have never encountered staunch negativity or hateful speech towards the LGBTQ community on campus. There are people who disagree with homosexuality, the students note, but they have never heard any professors say “gays are going to hell” or any negative comments directly pointed towards students. 

In Rynders’ opinion, the plaintiffs have the right to make their voices heard, especially if they don’t feel valued by the institution they are attending. 

“You can be Christian and sue,” Rynders said. 

She agrees with Paul’s sentiments from I Corinthians 6 where he calls Christians to resolve conflict amongst themselves. However, in Rynders opinion, it would be difficult and unproductive to discuss the issues internally at this point.

Roth does not feel the lawsuit is justified. While he promotes Christians engaging with law—similar to how Paul appeals to Caesar in Acts 25—he sees lawsuits as a way to hold those accountable who are hating individuals. 

“This [suing] looks different to different people,” Roth said.

One of the motivating factors for Lauren Hoekstra through the lawsuit process has been to use her voice in order to protect future LGBTQ students who pass through Dordt’s campus. Hoekstra explained she has a friend who discovered her sexuality this year. This friend grew up in the broader Sioux County community and has wondered if she will be safe were she to come out. This individual, Hoekstra stated, is surrounded by friends and parents who are homophobic, and with Dordt being a primarily conservative campus, this friend feels unable to express herself. 

“Jesus wouldn’t vote for religious exemptions,” Lauren Hoekstra said. “It is not Christ-like to treat LGBTQ folks differently.”

“Hopefully there is a viable third way where both sides agree and are allowed to live” Roth said. “But I don’t know what that looks like.”

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