WACO, TX — Two Baylor students are making national headlines after joining 31 other students nationwide in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education.
"We all have a voice, and we all have a say on what happens, and it's beautiful to know we're all coming together to affect change on our campus throughout the U.S.," said Jake Picker, a Baylor senior and plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, filed by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, claims it's unconstitutional for Christian colleges and universities, like Baylor University, to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students through religious exceptions while also being funded by taxpayer money.
"Even if we remove LGBTQ+ issues from this conversation, we're still talking about human rights and who gets them and who does not, and we shouldn't even be having that conversation on who does not deserve human rights," said Picker.
"It's a little bit of a mixed experience. You find comfort in your friends and your community here among your students. You also have those people who are kind of behind the scenes not rooting for you. Then you find very accepting faculty, very supportive faculty, and then faculty who'd rather not talk about it," said Veronica Penales, a Baylor sophomore and fellow plaintiff.
Penales says she's reported harassment she's received based on her sexual orientation and sexual identity. Those complaints went unanswered, according to Penales, even after receiving a Bible with highlighted anti-queer quotes as well as multiple Post-it notes on her door with offensive slurs.
"Nothing has been done, no investigations have been made. If Baylor says that they're supporting their LGBTQ+ students and making sure they feel comfortable, to that extent nothing has been done," Penales said.
Also in question is the university's refusal to recognize the unofficial LGBTQ+ group "Gamma Alpha Epsilon." The group has pushed for an official charter for the last 10 years, receiving endorsement from the Baylor Faculty Senate in February 2021.
"I believe this lawsuit will push them in a direction to say yes, because they've been saying no for decades, and even before Gamma Alpha Upsilon was a thing, there have been queer students at Baylor University since it's inception," said Pickler.
In response, Baylor University released the following statement.
“Baylor University maintains certain rights to exercise its freedom of religion under the U.S. Constitution and other federal laws without interference by the government. This includes exemptions for religiously affiliated institutions that uphold traditional religious beliefs about marriage and sexuality. As part of our Christian mission, Baylor continues to strive to provide a loving and caring community for all students, including our LGBTQ students.”
It's important to note the students involved are not representing Gamma Alpha Upsilon in the lawsuit, but say they are representing all queer students throughout the US.
"Is what I'm doing going to ruin my reputation here at Baylor more than helping? I had a lot of thoughts like, 'Okay, is this gonna put me in trouble? Is this gonna do something with my academics here?' Those are kind of my fears with the issue," said Penales. "So if me telling my story is gonna help this case, so be it. I can get behind a cause like that. I really hope this lawsuit being so public and garnering so much attention ensures that the LGBTQ+ issue is at the forefront, as it should be."
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