JEFFERSON CITY – Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) university presidents expressed disappointment after a federal judge rejected the College of the Ozark’s (COO) request to press pause on a federal directive that could force Christian universities to cater to the LGBT agenda.
Federal Judge Roseann Ketchmark, in the Western District of Missouri, denied COO’s request for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, May 19, though she hasn’t dismissed the complaint or ruled in favor of the federal directive. If Ketchmark had approved the injunction, it would have halted enforcement of the federal directive while the lawsuit moves forward.
“The lawsuit will proceed to trial, unless the judge decides that the College can’t sue until a specific complaint is filed against them by a student or the government,” Kansas City attorney Michael Whitehead, member of Fellowship Church, Greenwood, told The Pathway. “COO was seeking ‘pre-enforcement relief’ which says ‘we don’t want to wait until we are sued – we need legal clarity now.’ So … there will be more litigation to follow on this case.”
A Christian school located south of Branson, COO isn’t affiliated with the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC). However, like COO, the MBC’s three universities have no desire to affirm unbiblical views of sexuality and marriage.
Missouri Baptist University (MBU) President Keith Ross told The Pathway he was “certainly disappointed” by the judge’s decision to reject COO’s request. He called the federal directive “an overreach by the current administration and an infringement of our deeply held religious beliefs as a Christian University.” He added, “We will continue to monitor this executive order closely as we continue to carry out our Christ-centered mission.”
Hannibal-LaGrange University President Anthony Allen told The Pathway, “Under the current administration, we have returned to a very aggressive assault on religious liberties. We will continue to fight to preserve our values and tenets of our faith.”
Brad Johnson, interim president at Southwest Baptist University (SBU), also noted the need for vigilance among Christian universities because of such legal challenges.
“As a Christian liberal arts university, we constantly monitor governmental rule changes, legislation, and lawsuits that could impact our ability to retain our identity and Christ-centered mission,” Johnson said. “We continue to watch this development very closely as it is troubling anytime a ruling threatens the values we hold dear.
“Some of the most significant challenges we face in Christian Higher Education come from the cultural, legal, and governmental arenas,” he added. “Proceedings like this can impact student housing and have a far-reaching impact on campus culture and student financial aid. Now more than ever before, the world needs the service and ministry of a Christ-centered, biblically-based higher education experience like that of Southwest Baptist University and our sister institutions, MBU and HLGU. Our graduates serve as ‘salt and light’ in a world that desperately needs the love of Jesus Christ.”
What prompted COO’s lawsuit?
COO’s lawsuit challenges a directive from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that forces religious schools to violate their beliefs by opening their dormitories, including dorm rooms and shared shower spaces, to members of the opposite sex. The directive accomplishes this by requiring entities covered by the Fair Housing Act to not “discriminate” based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The government can’t force schools to open girls’ dorm rooms to males or vice-versa,” said ADF Senior Counsel Julie Marie Blake. “President Biden is punishing religious schools, organizations, and churches simply because of their beliefs about marriage and biological sex. Religious schools like the College of the Ozarks are free to follow the religious tradition they represent. That’s why we are asking the court to halt enforcement of this unconstitutional directive while our lawsuit proceeds.”
The administration’s rule change forces religious schools to violate their beliefs by opening up female dorms to biological males and male dorms to biological females, or face fines of up to six figures, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees. HUD’s reinterpretation of “sex” in the Fair Housing Act comes in light of President Biden’s executive order titled, “Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation,” signed in January 2021.
The lawsuit opposes the HUD directive and the executive order requiring it. The order, issued to all federal agencies, requires them to modify their policies on sex discrimination to include sexual orientation and gender identity. The lawsuit explains that the HUD directive contradicts the historical judicial interpretation of the Fair Housing Act, which confirms that “sex” means biological sex. The suit also argues that the directive exceeds the administration’s authority and violates the constitutionally protected freedom of College of the Ozarks and similar religious institutions to operate consistently with their religious beliefs.
Whitehead told The Pathway that Christian universities aren’t protected from the HUD directive by religious exemptions granted under Title IX. “The directive applies to the Fair Housing Act, which applies to college housing, regardless of a college’s religious exemption under Title IX,” he said.
(This article includes reporting from the Alliance Defending Freedom.)