Lee University considers limiting student speech on gender

CLEVELAND, Tenn. (AP) — A private Christian university is considering strictly limiting the free speech rights of its students when it comes to sexuality and gender, from how they behave to what they wear and what they can say on campus or even online, according to published reports.

If approved, the policy presented to faculty and staff at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, this month would not allow students to identify as anything other than their biological sex. They also would be forbidden from questioning these restrictions or any other university policy, according to a leaked draft.

The proposal has sparked criticism from some former students, including the Affirming Alum Collective, a group of alumni from Lee University, who posted on Facebook that they were “deeply saddened and frustrated by the new anti-LGBTQIA+ policies” under consideration.

A university spokesperson, Kendra Mann, released a statement to WTVC-TV and the Chattanooga Times Free Press saying the policy has been in the works for years and is in line with long-standing theological beliefs.

“The statement in question does not represent sweeping changes in policy at Lee; it is an explanation of the beliefs underpinning a group of policies that have been in place for quite some time,” the statement said.

The school, which gets its funding in part from The Church of God, had planned to get more feedback before publishing its “Statement of Beliefs Concerning Human Sexuality and Gender” ahead of the fall semester, the statement said.

The draft policy declares that biological sex is binary and “humans do not have the ability, or observed right, to choose a gender.”

“No member of the Lee University community may publicly identify or behave as a gender that does not correspond to his or her biological sex,” the draft states.

“No member of the Lee University community may promote or advocate, in person, in writing, or online, for sexual acts, behaviors or lifestyles that are contrary to Scripture, this statement of belief, or any other university policy,” it says.

The policy also forbids sex between unmarried heterosexuals.

“I feel like this is just their last ditch effort to try to, at the very least, scare students into silence, hence why a lot of the policies within the statement are about advocacy and what you can and cannot say on public platforms in support of LGBTQ+ students and people,” said Taylor Lane, a lesbian who left the school in December.

Former student Joie St. Hubert told WTVC-TV that it’s not right for the university to preach about love and inclusivity and not practice it.

Current student Bethany Robinson also had issues with the proposal.

“It is a Christian institution, so I understand the beliefs they have, but it should still be a place of like community and love no matter what, because we are Christians. And as Christians, we’re supposed to love one another,” Robinson said.

Federal law bars discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation or gender identity for education programs receiving federal funds, but religious schools like Lee are exempt if those protections interfere with the religious tenets of the organization, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Lee’s policy is part of a national trend, according to Kaitlin Gabriele-Black, assistant professor of psychology at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, who has researched the experiences of LGBTQ students at evangelical colleges.

“Zeroing in on these students, who represent such a small minority of students, appeals to the base of schools like Lee and other evangelical Christian schools,” Gabriele-Black told the newspaper.

The Church of God is a Pentecostal Christian denomination with thousands of congregations and millions of members around the world.