Andrew Hartzler is one of many students seeking to end federal funding for religious schools that discriminate against sexual minorities. At one mandatory, videotaped chapel service, the university president of Oral Roberts University asked students to confess as to whether they “needed healing” for their marginalized sexual identities. Hartzler, a gay student aware of the university’s threat of expulsion for gay students, did not raise his hand.
In discussing the need to end discriminatory policies against sexual and gender minorities at religious universities, I have heard the response, “LGBTQ+ students should just choose other schools.” However, as Politico describes, Hartzler was following his father’s wishes and seeking the only option he could afford. In a country with a student loan crisis, many young adults are forced to choose between significant debt or a highly risky college experience. For example, Mississippi College is a Southern Baptist university with punishments for sexual minorities in its own student handbook, but remains one of the cheapest options for college students in the state of MS.
According to the honor code at ORU, identifying as gay results in expulsion, a threat that haunted Hartzler from his first day on campus. The Religious Exemption Accountability Project, which advocates for sexual and gender minorities at Christian institutes of higher learning, stated that even students who escape disciplinary action deal with constant anxiety over their identities:
“These policies that criminalize their identities and behavior, it’s like this dark cloud hanging over their head. It causes them to have to remain in the closet, to conceal, to be super vigilant about their behavior.”
Paul Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project
Although Christian universities did not succeed in continuing to discriminate based on racial or ethnic identity, they attempt the same arguments in upholding anti-LGBTQ+ policies, arguing that Christians should not have to comply with civil rights laws. If Hartzler’s lawsuit succeeds, Christian schools punishing students for their sexual and gender identities could face a loss of federal funding on the basis that government money should not support religious views that contradict public policy.
“It’s a weird feeling to be in trouble for who you are, especially.”
While on Christmas break, Hartzler attempted suicide, and later faced disciplinary action from ORU’s Dean Lori Cook that led to an anxiety attack. The COVID-19 pandemic allowed him to avoid campus and learn remotely so that he could complete his students in 2021. After graduation, he heard about the Religious Exemption Accountability Project and joined the lawsuit. That Christmas, his family did not allow him to return home.
“Almost nobody at this point knew that I was queer, and just that feeling of things being so isolated, and feeling so alone, and feeling so targeted and having no choice but to try to fit in, so I don’t lose my entire livelihood.”
Josiah Robinson, ORU graduate working with the Religious Exemption Accountability Project
Despite many victories in the progression toward equality, college students still face this discrimination at many Christian colleges and universities throughout the country. At the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, we aim to create safe and welcoming spaces of affirmation, healing, dignity and purpose for all of God’s children. Looking ahead, we see this need for continued work to preserve equity and justice for college students learning from the margins.