The Rev. Kalie Hargrove didn’t realize she was transgender until roughly a decade after she had begun classes at Lincoln Christian University in Illinois. When she started her transition in 2020, she was a distance learner in her second stint at the university, and while she didn’t volunteer her gender identity to school officials, she didn’t hide it either.
In fact, Hargrove wrote an essay for an online publication last June on her identity as a trans woman and as a Christian. Somehow — she’s still not sure how — Lincoln Christian University officials found out about the essay two months later and gave her two choices, she said: withdraw from classes or face disciplinary action.
Publicly identifying as trans violated the school’s student code of conduct, Hargrove said officials told her.
“It’s so dehumanizing for them to just look at one part of me and say, ‘No, you don’t belong here,’” said Hargrove, an ordained minister studying to become an Old Testament professor. “They’re essentially saying that they just don’t want me existing in the same world as them.”
Ultimately, Hargrove decided to withdraw from classes. She worried if she didn’t do it quickly, she would miss the window during which her tuition could be refunded, she said. But the 34-year-old didn’t go away quietly.
An advocacy group filed a Title IX complaint against Lincoln Christian University on Hargrove’s behalf in October. Last month, the Department of Education announced it would investigate whether the university had violated Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits schools that receive government funding from discriminating on the basis of sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity.
There is a loophole: Faith-based schools have long been able to obtain religious exemptions to Title IX by providing a written statement to the Department of Education specifying which provisions in the law contradict their religious beliefs. Then, in 2020, the Trump administration expanded eligibility so that even institutions that have not formally requested exemptions can be covered in the face of Title IX complaints. So, while Lincoln Christian University never made a formal request for a religious exemption, Hargrove’s attorneys said, the school can still invoke the rule after the fact.
That’s why Hargrove is not stopping with the civil rights complaint against the school. She joined a class-action lawsuit filed in March against the Department of Education that challenges whether the Title IX religious exemption is constitutional. The lawsuit is led by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), the same group that filed Hargrove’s Title IX complaint. It says more than 200 colleges and universities that receive federal funding have obtained religious exemptions that allow them to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students. It’s not uncommon for these institutions to receive government grants and subsidized loans to cover expenses such as campus construction and repairs. Over 40 students are plaintiffs in the class-action suit.
“We claim that the exemption, as it’s applied to LGBTQ students, violates the students’ constitutional equal protection right to be free from discrimination because of sexual orientation and gender identity while attending educational programs that receive federal government funding,” said Joe Baxter, a REAP attorney. “We’re also claiming that the notice requirements of the regulations that were changed during the Trump administration are unconstitutional because they also encroach on our students’ rights to notice, due process and equal protection.”
The Department of Education did not respond to The 19th’s requests for comment about the lawsuit and the civil rights complaint. Lincoln Christian University posted a statement on its website January 26 acknowledging that it is the subject of a Title IX investigation by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. “We are responding to the OCR and have no further comment at this time,” the statement said.
Hargrove has had two stints at Lincoln Christian University. After initially enrolling in 2009, she dropped out of the school after a year and a half to financially support her family, serving in the Air Force for nine years. Determined to finish her master’s degree in divinity, in 2019 she returned to Lincoln, her tuition covered by the Montgomery GI bill.
“I didn’t realize I was trans until after I had already been reaccepted and re-enrolled in school and starting class,” she said. “I was at a distance, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know if I was going to transition or anything like that. So, I went forward with going to school there. Then in late spring 2020, I decided to actually start transitioning and taking hormones, but I still wasn’t out to the school.”
Hargrove thought that even if she did come out, Lincoln wouldn’t oust her because of Title IX. Baxter said many students don’t know that religious schools can cite Title IX exemptions to protect themselves from accusations of bias. Most schools don’t advertise these exemptions, he added, and students typically don’t understand their ramifications.
“Then, after the fact, they just feel completely blindsided and betrayed a little bit by their government because they don’t have any protection — especially students like Kalie who spent nine years in the U.S. military,” he said. “She put her life on the line for her country and to be kind of abandoned by her school with zero protection, it’s one’s career and future earnings at stake, and it’s really degrading and demeaning to be abandoned like that by your government.”
About 12 percent of students at taxpayer-funded Christian colleges identify as LGBTQ+, according to a 2021 REAP report. Members of the LGBTQ+ community end up at faith-based institutions for a number of reasons, Baxter said. Many didn’t recognize their gender identity or sexual orientation until after they enrolled in these institutions. Others received financial help from these schools or come from religious families who would pay for only religious schools. And some simply live near these colleges and universities, making them convenient places to study. In any case, once they enroll in these institutions, leaving them can be complicated depending on their financial situation or proximity to graduation, Baxter said.
But it’s almost impossible to remain at these colleges and universities without being closeted, said Hargrove, now a distance learner at United Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. That school has been incredibly affirming of her gender identity, Hargrove said, but leaving Lincoln means that she will graduate about a year later than planned because not all of her credits from Lincoln transferred. More than the delay in graduation, Hargrove is saddened that leaving Lincoln in many ways means she will be estranged from her religious tradition.
“Lincoln is part of the Independent Christian Church,” she said. “It’s the tradition that I grew up in. I went to my undergrad at an Independent Christian Church Bible college and got my bachelor’s through the same tradition. I went to Lincoln originally because it was my tradition, and I went back to it because that was my tradition. I didn’t just get kicked out of school. I got kicked out of my tradition.”