Feds Give Spring Arbor University Permission To Discriminate Against LGBT Community

Todd A. Heywood

MICHIGAN - The U.S. Department of Education has given Michigan based Spring Arbor University permission to discriminate against LGBT students and employees. In a letter dated June 2, 2014, Spring Arbor University President Brent Ellis requested the federal government waive requirements under Title IX of the U.S. Code, which dictates treatment of students and employees at universities and other educational settings.

"Spring Arbor University is requesting an exemption from the specific Title IX regulations referenced in this letter, so that the University may discriminate on religious grounds in regards to its students and employees, in keeping with its religious beliefs and tenets of the Free Methodist religion, as set forth in this request," Ellis wrote on June 2.

The university sought waivers related to transgender students, lesbian, gay and bisexual students and in reference to unmarried pregnant students, unmarried single parents, and persons who have had an abortion. The waiver would allow the university to refuse services to all the people in the category for housing, educational options and employment.

On June 27, Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the US Department of Education, responded to Ellis, approving the University's waiver.

"The University is exempt from the provisions listed immediately above, to the extent that they require the University to treat pregnancy, abortion, sexual orientation, and pre-marital and extra-marital relationships in a manner which is inconsistent with the religious tenets of its controlling organization," Lhamon wrote.

This is not the first time Spring Arbor University has been in the news for its discriminatory policies related to LGBT people. In 2007, Dr. Julie Nemecek brought a lawsuit against the university after it fired her for being transgender. She later reached an undisclosed settlement with the university. That firing, as well as the university's anti-gay policies resulted in the cancellation of a partnership with Lansing Community College that same year.

"I am disappointed they did that," Nemecek said of the news in a phone interview with BTL Friday afternoon.

And the experience at Spring Arbor for LGBT students was also not particularly safe, BTL reported in 2007. In an interview with BTL at the time, student Jamie, whose real name was not used, spoke of the situation on campus.

"I just hope that anyone who reads the piece that feels like they can't be themselves even around their friends, that they know it's not OK to feel that way. It's not OK to feel like you are wrong. You are not wrong. It's different but not wrong," Jamie said. "I think people shouldn't have to feel like the feelings they have or the relationships they have are wrong, even in God's eyes."

Alumni of the university have launched a Facebook group as well as a Change.org petition to advocate for change from the university.

"Here is something that has been on my heart about this whole thing - Christianity and the LGBTQ community have never really gotten along," says Del Belcher in a Facebook chat interview with BTL. "That really isn't news. However, the extent of SAU and the other two university's request is mind boggling. Denying a person's ability to identify themselves, rejecting individuals on the basis of marital state, parental status, sexual and gender identity, where you live and who you live with - it just goes too far. I understand the rights of a community to set particular standards, but this request for exemption doesn't create standards, it bypasses dialogue and removes even the opportunity for constructive conversation."

Belcher, a 2007 graduate with a degree in Worship Arts, added, "At the very least, this is incredibly destructive."

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