Beto O’Rourke went to high school at Woodberry Forest School in Virginia. He graduated from the boarding school in 1991. Woodberry Forest is an all-boys school. Like most schools, colleges, and universities, it is a non-profit organization with tax-exempt status.
I have lectured on Woodberry’s beautiful campus, ate dinner in its dining hall, and spent a memorable post-lecture evening with the president and faculty talking about the humanities and history education. Woodberry Forrest is probably a bit too elite for my tastes, but it is certainly a place that takes the education of boys very seriously.
Earlier today, I did a post on last night’s CNN’s Democratic presidential candidate’s forum on LGBTQ issues. During the forum, Beto said that if he were president he would remove the tax-exempt status of churches and religious institutions and schools that “oppose same sex marriage.” Institutions that uphold traditional views of marriage, according to Beto, “infringe on the human rights of our fellow Americans.”
So I have two related questions for Beto:
- Does Woodberry Forest discriminate against the human rights of women by forbidding them to attend the school? Should Woodberry Forest lose its tax exempt status as a result?
- What happens if a boy at Woodberry Forest transitions to a woman while matriculating at the school? Does she have the right to stay at the all boys school? If Woodberry Forest asks her to leave, would that be a form of discrimination? Should the school lose its tax-exempt status as a result?
By using Woodberry Forest as an example here, I am drawing heavily from the work of John Inazu in his book Confident Pluralism. He uses the example of Wellesley, an all women’s college in Massachusetts, that has wrestled with the same questions in recent years as some students at the college transition to men.
I have been reading Washington University law professor John D. Inazu‘s challenging and refreshing book Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference (University of Chicago Press, 2016).
Here is a passage from the Introduction that really hit me between the eyes:
“Wellesley College, an all-women’s school, now confronts internal challenges around its growing transgender student population. Even though Wellesley admits only women, a number of its current students have transitioned to men after matriculation. As a recent New York Times story asks: “What’s a women’s college to do? Trans students point out that they’re doing exactly what these schools encourage: breaking gender barriers, fulfilling their deepest yearnings and forging ahead even when society tries to hold them back. But yielding to their request to dilute the focus on women would undercut the identity of a women’s college.” One student reasoned: “I realized that if we excluded trans students, we’d be fighting on the wrong team. We’d be on the wrong side of history.” A recent graduate reached the opposite conclusion: “Sisterhood is why I chose to go to Wellesley.” The New York Times noted that this woman “asked not to be identified for fear she’d be denounced for her position.”
The last example exposes a particularly acute challenge: Wellesely cannot remain a women’s college whose identity in some ways rests on gender exclusivity and at the same time welcome transgender students who identify as men. It will have to choose between two competing views. But perhaps even more important than what decision Wellesley reaches is how it reaches that decision. Will Wellesley be able to choose its own institutional identity, or will the government impose a norm on the private school through law and regulation? Will other citizens tolerate Wellesley’s choice, or will they challenge its accreditation, boycott its events, and otherwise malign its existence? Will the process through which Wellesley reaches its decision be one of open engagement across deep difference, or will students, faculty, and administrators speak only under the cover of anonymity?”
Will Beto’s views allow Woodberry Forest to continue its identity as an all-boys school that “discriminates” against women? I am sure there are many parents who send their kids to Woodberry precisely because it is an all-boys school. Will Beto’s view allow churches, religious charities, and faith-based colleges to continue their Christian identities without government interference? This might be stating the obvious, but there are many Americans who attend churches and send their kids to Christian colleges precisely because they hold certain beliefs that are rooted in deeply held religious convictions.