LYNCHBURG, Va. (WFXR) — Two former Liberty University students are part of a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education.
In the lawsuit, which was filed on Monday, March 29 by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), 33 students claim they regularly face “abuses and unsafe conditions” at 25 religious colleges and universities across the country.
Title IX is a federal, civil rights law that “protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance.” However, the law contains an exemption for religious entities and institutions.
The lawsuit is aiming to strike down the religious exemption.
In the 67-page document, the former Liberty University students are identified as Lucas Wilson and Mackenzie McCann. Both students share their experiences on the discrimination they say they’ve faced while at the school.
Wilson identifies as gay. He says he didn’t always feel comfortable with his self-identity.
In August 2008, Wilson became a student at Liberty University, mainly because of the school’s gay conversion therapy program.
“This was something very important to me. This was something that I wanted. I wanted to become straight,” said Wilson.
For four years, he participated in the program, which consisted of individual and group sessions with other men struggling with their identity.
“Looking back, it was incredibly bizarre,” Wilson said. “It’s this group of guys on a campus that disallows queer expression or articulation.”
The secretly-guarded group, known at the time as “Band of Brothers,” involved workbooks, readings of bible verses, and prayers.
Wilson says the group felt shame. His experience soon lead to long-lasting mental health effects.
“It very much fed into, and amplified these preexisting feelings, of self-hatred, of shame, of guilt, of anxiety,” said Wilson.
For McCann, it was a personal challenge to be around like-minded students. While she wanted to attend Liberty University to study biblical studies, she also identified as non-binary and queer.
“I wanted to be in a community where I could be devotional in my faith, but also study it academically,” said McCann.
Throughout her semester in the Fall of 2018, McCann says she often experienced questioning remarks and rude comments from other students and faculty.
She reflected on one instance involving a professor and a need for group prayer.
“The professor asked the whole classroom to pray for his sister because she was a lesbian,” McCann said. “So the faculty, in my experience, made it very clear how they feel about queer people and queer issues.”
McCann’s tolerance only lasted for so long. She says by the first week, she knew she needed to leave. After the first semester, she left the institution.
“You just know when a space isn’t safe for queer people, and I just knew,” said McCann.
Director of REAP Paul Southwick says their experiences, and other students’ from religious colleges and universities across the country, shouldn’t go unnoticed.
“There is a heaviness to it,” Southwick said. “There’s no getting around it. The experiences are rough.”
Now, as the head trial lawyer for the class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education, he hopes something can be done.
“Either the schools themselves, or the federal government, intervenes to promote safety here,” said Southwick.
You can read the full class action lawsuit below:
WFXR News reached out to Liberty University for comment but has yet to hear back.