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Under the part of U.S. law known as Title IX, schools that discriminate against students because of their sex can lose federal aid. Decades ago, the law drove colleges to invest more in women's sports. Now there's a new Title IX issue. Some conservative Christian colleges fear that if the word sex in that law includes sexual orientation or gender identity, then schools that oppose LGBT rights may lose federal funding. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Any school that gets federal funds has to have someone students can contact if they think they face discrimination because of their sex. Christine Guzman holds that position at Azusa Pacific University, a conservative Christian school in California. She takes a broad view of this Title IX protection.
CHRISTINE GUZMAN: Sex has to do with identity and your gender and who you are. So if there's a student who is feeling discriminated against because of their identity then, yeah, absolutely I'm going to apply that law.
GJELTEN: And it's not hard to imagine how a discrimination case might come up. Mary Hulst, the chaplain at Calvin College in Michigan, cites the example of transgender students.
MARY HULST: If they're identifying as this and yet their birth certificate still says this 'cause they haven't transitioned, where do we place them? How do we care for them? How do we provide restroom facilities that are - you know, it's all of those things.
GJELTEN: Here's the thing. Azusa Pacific, Calvin and other conservative Christian schools have religious views that may affect how they treat gay or transgender students. Azusa Pacific holds to a belief that people are created, quote, "as gendered beings" and that heterosexuality is God's design. Calvin has similar beliefs. If because of these beliefs the schools won't recognize students as transgender or don't allow students to be in a same-sex marriage, the fear is they could face a Title IX complaint. Just as that law made colleges open up to women's sports, maybe it could force them to change their sexual orientation policies or risk losing federal funding.
BRAD HARPER: Every single Christian institution is wondering about that and thinking, what happens if we lose government funding? I mean...
GJELTEN: Brad Harper is a theology professor at Multnomah University in Oregon. These new Title IX fears spiked in 2016 when the Obama administration said the law does bar discrimination on the basis of gender identity, not just sex. Harper and Mary Hulst and Christine Guzman all attended a recent meeting of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, a generally conservative group. Four sessions at the meeting focused on whether Title IX could put their government funding in danger. Dale Kemp is the chief financial officer at Wheaton College in Illinois.
DALE KEMP: The fear is so large in so many institutions because 40 or 50 or maybe even 60 percent of their budgets are really coming from the federal government.
GJELTEN: There's no reason to panic just yet. Religious schools can apply for a Title IX exemption on the basis of their beliefs. Some have gotten an exemption so they don't have to house male and female students together. Shapri LoMaglio, vice president for government affairs at the Christian colleges council, says a similar exemption could allow schools to maintain some theoretically discriminatory policies on sexual orientation. And she thinks courts would go along.
SHAPRI LOMAGLIO: Religious exemptions are exemptions because they are for small groups of people. It doesn't necessarily undermine the full purpose of the law to have them. And I think case law is upholding the idea that that exemption is the right thing in order to be faithful to the Constitution.
GJELTEN: Moreover, the Trump administration last year reversed the Obama administration's Title IX guidance. But Christian schools are not entirely reassured. Carl Trueman at the Westminster Theological Seminary thinks the politics could swing back in a few years.
CARL TRUEMAN: Depending on the makeup of the Supreme Court, depending on who is president, I could see the gay-transgender issue being pushed in a way that would seek to make Christian colleges either surrender their federal funding or change their position and conform with the wider consensus.
GJELTEN: If Christian schools don't want to accommodate gay or transgender students, might they lose federal funding? Too soon to say, but many of these schools say it's not too soon to worry. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: A previous version of the headline incorrectly referred to Title VII. In fact, the pertinent law is known as Title IX.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.