© 2023 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Two Iowa Students Among Plaintiffs Suing U.S. Department Of Ed Over LGBTQ Discrimination

Dordt University student Lauren Hoekstra is one of 33 plaintiffs suing the U.S. Department of Education, alleging discrimination against LGBTQ individuals at some private religious colleges and universities.
Kevin Truong
Dordt University student Lauren Hoekstra is one of 33 plaintiffs suing the U.S. Department of Education, alleging discrimination against LGBTQ individuals at some private religious colleges and universities.

Two students at a western Iowa university are among those suing the U.S. Department of Education, alleging some private religious colleges are discriminating against LGBTQ individuals. The class action lawsuit argues the practice is unconstitutional because the schools receive federal funding. The lawsuit takes aim at religious exemptions issued by the DOE, which the plaintiffs argue give the schools cover to institute anti-LGBTQ policies and practices, leaving students open to expulsion, denial of housing and health care, harassment and severe social isolation because of who they are.

When Lauren Hoekstra read in the Dordt University Student Handbook that her school expressly prohibited promoting, advocating or participating in “homosexual relations” and “transgendered behavior," she was shocked.

“Seeing those policies definitely made me realize, I’m not safe here. I can’t be myself here,” Hoekstra said. “It just kind of was that moment of, ‘well this kind of changes everything’.”

The Grandville, Mich. native is a junior and majoring in Secondary English Education at the university in Sioux Center, which is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church. Hoekstra also identifies as queer and is one of 33 plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit filed this week.

The other Iowa plaintiff is Avery Bonestroo, who is also a student at Dordt and identifies as bisexual and gender fluid.

The case filed in a federal district court in Oregon references 25 private colleges and universities across the country that the plaintiffs argue are empowered by the federal government to openly discriminate against students on the basis of their sexual or gender identity.

“When taxpayer-funded religious institutions require sexual and gender minority students to hide their identity out of fear, or to behave contrary to their fundamental sexual or gender identity, the unsurprising consequences are intense pain, loneliness and self-harm,” reads the lawsuit. “Students perceive that their campus, and even their government, believes that they are inferior in dignity and worth.”

The lawsuit argues that the religious exemptions violate Title IX, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The plaintiffs, who are represented by the Oregon-based Religious Exemption Accountability Project, estimate that there are more than 100,000 sexual and gender minority students attending private religious colleges and universities where discrimination against LGBTQ people is codified in campus policy.

According to Dordt’s student handbook, the university pledges to “extend compassion and care” to students as they aim to “live consistently with the Bible’s teaching on sexual purity."

“Dordt University will make institutional decisions in light of this policy regarding employment, hiring, retention of employees, and continued enrollment of students,” reads a section on “unacceptable” sexual conduct. “Dordt University may determine that, as the result of conduct described as prohibited, an individual shall be dismissed from the university.”

Hoekstra says she was afraid to come out because of the campus policies, and spoke with friends and trusted professors and administrators ahead of time to gauge whether her decision to live authentically would violate the school’s policy prohibiting students from “promoting or advocating” for “homosexual relations."

Hoekstra ultimately decided to go through with it, saying the experience of coming out was “one of the most liberating things I’ve done ever." Hoekstra says she’s been relieved that she hasn’t received any warnings from the university and was glad that “they chose not to engage."

University officials have put out a media release on the lawsuit, saying that statements outlined in the complaint “do not represent the practices” at the school.

“As a Christian university, Dordt does maintain community standards which are obedient to Scripture. We seek to live these out with grace and truth—modeling Christ-like behavior in all areas of campus life,” the statement reads. “We pledge to extend compassion, care, support, and accountability for each member of our campus community as we develop into effective Kingdom citizens.”

Hoekstra says it has been extremely difficult and painful for her to try and reconcile the religious beliefs taught by the Christian Reformed Church tradition she was raised in and her own understanding of God now.

“It’s definitely tricky to balance my personal beliefs about God and religion with what Dordt University puts out as their beliefs,” Hoekstra said. “Because if those are their beliefs and these are my beliefs, I feel like we almost believe in a different God. Which is painful.”

Still, Hoekstra says she believes that God made her the way she is for a purpose: to speak out and build a better, safer environment for people like her, especially in northwest Iowa.

“I am not a mistake. This is not a phase. I’m not going to change, because I tried to change, for years. I tried to pray it away and it didn’t go anywhere,” Hoekstra said. “I love Dordt. And I think Dordt can be better. And I want to be part of that change.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter