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Fed Waiver To Christian University Could Nullify Lansing Human Rights Ordinance Enforcement

By |2015-12-10T09:00:00-05:00December 10th, 2015|Michigan, News|

LANSING — A federal waiver granted to Spring Arbor University is causing officials in the city of Lansing to take a second look at the city’s human rights ordinance. The law was passed in 2006 — a decade after voters overwhelming rejected a similar law in a contentious ballot fight.
Spring Arbor University officials sought a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights last spring. The waiver, which was granted only months later, allows the self-described “Christian” university to discriminate in all offerings against the LGBT community, as well as unwed, pregnant or single mothers. The university sought the waiver as part of expressing their religious beliefs, but also so it could continue to accept federal funding streams — including grants and educational related payments such as Pell Grants.
The waiver allows the university to violate specific parts of Title IX, a federal law which is designed to stop discrimination on the basis of gender. In 2014, the Obama administration expanded definitions under the law to include gender nonconforming as well as gender identity as protected status. Specifically, the expanded ruling included discrimination against members of the lesbian, gay and bisexual community who did not conform to expected gender norms.
Andy Birkey, a reporter in Minnesota, obtained a list of 27 universities nationwide that had sought and obtained such waivers. Spring Arbor is the only Michigan institution on the list, published at Birkey’s TheColu.mn website.
That waiver could have a trickle down effect at the local level. City officials say because the local ordinance contains a provision which makes federal rules supercede the local ordinance, a student, employee or others experiencing discrimination by the university would likely have no recourse under the local law.
“It is permissible for a religious organization or institution to restrict employment opportunities, housing facilities or accommodations that are operated as a direct part of religious activities to persons who are members of or who conform to the moral tenets of that religious institution or organization,” the law reads in a section titled “Other exceptions.”
“This chapter shall not be construed to limit rights granted by State or Federal Constitution, law, rule or regulation, including but not limited to, the following,” The preamble of that section reads.
“It’s something I will be bringing up to the ad hoc committee on diversity on Friday morning,” said Carol Wood, a Lansing city council member who is overseeing a community review of the city’s ordinance. City officials plan to revisit the law specifically to include language to address bullying.
Kathie Dunbar, a city council member who authored the 2006 law, said she was going to ask the City Attorney for an opinion on what impact the federal waiver has on the operation of the ordinance in the city.
Spring Arbor has a history of discriminating against the LGBT community. In 2007, the university came under fire for terminating Julie Nemecek because she transitioned from male to female.
“Spring Arbor University has faced situations in the past where the actions of faculty members have been in direct conflict with the ideals we uphold,” writes a spokesperson for the university in a release sent to BTL at the time. “While it is not our practice to discuss the details of personnel matters, we can confirm that Spring Arbor University has made the decision to not renew John (sic) Nemecek’s contract after the Spring semester.”
The university and Nemecek reached an out of court settlement related to the discrimination. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
Also in 2007, students at the main campus in Spring Arbor, just outside of Jackson, told BTL they lived in “a bubble.”
SAU has policy prohibiting students from engaging in homosexual conduct and being found in violation can result in suspension or expulsion, as well as the potential of being outed to family members.
The university also withdrew from a partnership with Lansing Community College after college officials directed all possible tenets in the University Center. They would be expected to follow the college’s nondiscrimination policies, including prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

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