Lee University mentioned in Supreme Court LGBTQ+ discrimination case

Lee University mentioned in Supreme Court LGBTQ+ discrimination case

In this June 24, 2019 file photo, the empty courtroom is seen at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Today the Supreme Court began hearing a trio of cases debating whether existing federal employment discrimination laws protect LGBTQ+ employees. The case has the potential to impact Title VII and ultimately religious educational institutes such as Lee, who receive federal funding.

Known as Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, the original case revolves around Gerald Lynn Bostock, who claims he was fired from his job as child welfare services coordinator for being openly gay. Two similar cases were also grouped in by the Supreme Court, forming the trio on today’s docket.

Among the documents filed for the case is an amici curiae brief filed in August. The “friend of the court” brief includes statements from outside parties, offering insight about how the case may impact them. While Lee University is not a party in any of the cases, it is included among a list of religious institutions who may be affected by the outcome. The brief was among more than twenty documents filed in August for the case.

According to the case’s original petition, “This case is not about whether Congress should enact a statute prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation… Instead, the issue presented in this Petition is whether Congress did so more than 50 years ago when it enacted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of ‘sex’ and other protected classes, including race, color, religion and national origin.”

The brief offers a summary of how a decision by the court could impact religious educational organizations who receive federal funding and are already adhering to Title VII policies.

The brief begins, “Religious colleges and universities from different faiths appear on this brief… we are united in affirming that the freedom of religion includes the freedom to operate a college or university without sacrificing distinctive religious beliefs or practices. We submit this brief out of a profound concern that altering the settled meaning of Title VII would negatively impact faith-based institutions of higher education in significant and far-reaching ways.”

The brief continues, “to equate ‘sex’ with sexual orientation and gender identity would create new conflicts for many religious universities that hire employees whose beliefs and practices will advance their religious mission.”

Lee University is listed on Page 7 of the brief’s 13-page appendix. In total, 41 institutions are listed including the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), an association that includes Lee University and over a hundred other private Christian colleges and universities; Liberty University and Regent University.

Dr. Mike Hayes, vice president for student development, said in an email, “The lawyers filing the brief appear to have sampled different faith-based higher-education institutions to include in that appendix as examples of schools potentially affected by this ruling. The university did not participate in the filing of this brief.”

Dr. Thomas Pope, associate professor of political science, believes this is a matter of great importance for religious institutions because of the type of case it is. 

“The amicus brief for the CCCU also touches on Obergefell v. Hodges  and the questions with regard to gay marriage,” Pope said. “The Obergefell issue with higher education is about the taxing and spending power of Congress.”

Pope continues to explain any religious college could opt out of abiding by Obergefell by refusing federal funding. 

But according to Pope, Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia is different because it appears to be a commerce clause, which means the stipulations laid out by Congress still apply whether the organizations refuse federal funding or not. 

“This case is a very big deal for private religious colleges because it’s not necessarily an opt-out,” Pope said. 

Regardless of whether the court’s ruling will directly affect Lee University, its involvement with the amicus brief reignites questions about the university’s stance on LGBTQ+ issues.

Director of Human Resources Amy Ballard oversees the university’s hiring process as well as Title VII and Title IX compliance. She believes Lee has taken the proper steps to avoid any misunderstanding. 

“On Page 13 of our employee handbook is our discrimination clause which is the basis for how we hire for any position on the university. It’s generic because no person in whatever relation with Lee University shall be subject to discrimination because of race, color, national origin, age, sex, disability, or other basis protected by law,” Ballard said. “We put that ‘comma or other basis protected by law’ because we know that at any point laws can change and things like that, and so we want to make sure, at all times, we’re remaining inclusive.”

In her role as HR Director, Ballard strives to keep Lee’s employment environment inviting.

“I abide and want to make sure that I always keep our university in a place that is welcoming for all applicants to apply and then walk through that process as they are being hired,” Ballard said. “The best candidate for the job is found based off experience and also what they bring to the table… for each individual position on campus.”

Despite the discrimination policy, Lee’s employee moral conduct clause states the university “does not condone… homosexual practices and other forms of sexual behavior which violate scripture,” and engaging in these practices may result in suspension or termination. 

President Paul Conn previously addressed questions about the university’s LGBTQ+ policies during the 2019 Ask the President chapel. 

“Can Lee University be the kind of place that combines our deep values and convictions with a true spirit of love and Christ-like kindness to all people? Can we do this in official policy, and can we do it every day on this campus?” Conn asked. “And if we can do that—a commitment to traditional Biblical values, unwavering, and a commitment to kindness and love to all people on this campus—if we can do that, isn’t that what would please God? So let’s keep addressing this as we go along.”

For more information about Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, view the case docket and the amicus brief. For updates on the case, check out SCOTUSblog.

Editor’s Note: Matthew Taylor and Tyler Puckett also contributed to the background research for this article.

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