JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — East Tennessee State University (ETSU) policies will continue protecting LGBTQ students, faculty and staff despite a minor change to the wording on its website surrounding the federal Title IX law.

“ETSU has several policies that prohibit discrimination and our university’s nondiscrimination policy remains unchanged,” ETSU spokesperson Jessica Vodden told News Channel 11 in an emailed statement Friday.

Vodden said ETSU’s protections of any federally or state-protected classes of people prohibit discrimination, harassment and sexual misconduct. Those protections include “race, color, or ethnicity; sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or gender expression; national origin; marital or parental status; religion; age; disability; veteran’s status; and/or genetic information in Education Programs or Activities and employment,” Vodden wrote.

ETSU responded Friday to an Aug. 22 letter from Tennessee Rep. John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge) in which he asked state universities to review their Title IX policies and public-facing language. If those included references to Title IX protecting sexual orientation and gender identity, Ragan advised that schools change those.

Ragan said his letter stemmed from two things: some schools changing their Title IX policies to include protecting sexual orientation and gender identity after a June 2021 federal interpretation aligning with that view; and a July 2022 lower court decision that “enjoins” schools from interpreting Title IX that way pending further court review.

As it turns out, ETSU had not changed its Title IX policy after the 2021 Department of Education “Dear Colleague” letter to schools. That accompanied the attached “Notice of Interpretation,” which now contains a reference in red letters to the injunction impacting 20 states.

ETSU Chief Counsel Mark Fulks’s letter to Ragan states that ETSU did not change its Title IX policy following the notice. ETSU filed its “Title IX Compliance Rule” in May 2021, and it became effective in August 2021.

“Our rule does not apply to discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity,” Fulks wrote, adding that since it became effective in August 2021, the school had not taken action to amend it.

The university did make one amendment to its website’s description of Title IX’s protections “in order to comply with state law.” News Channel 11 reported that change in its original Sept. 1 story on Ragan’s letter.

Here’s why we can still protect people

Fulks then uses the bulk of his letter to describe to Ragan in detail the various policies ETSU has had for at least five years “that prohibit discrimination because of ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity/expression.'”

He writes that ETSU followed a Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) policy from March 24, 2017 to Jan. 14, 2020, which “prohibited discrimination because of ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity/expression.'”

Fulks then cites several sections of Tennessee law that ETSU followed in establishing its policy on sexual misconduct that went into effect on Jan. 14. 2020. That, too, protected discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation as well as “gender identity or non-conformity with sexual stereotypes.'”

Fulks then describes the latest adopted policy (Oct. 12, 2021) “pursuant to authority granted by statute,” which also prohibits discrimination and harassment against the same groups. He also cites ETSU’s accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. That organization’s position statement on diversity, equity and inclusion include a commitment to sexual orientation or sex/gender identity.

Finally, Fulks points to ETSU’s commitment summed up in its employee code of conduct, to “core values” from which the university community can show a commitment to integrity, “respect for diversity, engagement in the community and non-violence.”

He writes that to the best of ETSU’s knowledge, its policies, publications and websites reflect the university’s obligations under both state and federal law.

As for the Title IX issue, Vodden noted that the courts are still determining whether sexual orientation and gender expression are considered protected classes.

“Regardless of that outcome, ETSU’s policy prohibiting discrimination of any kind remains in effect. Core to ETSU’s Mission and Values is the declaration that people come first, are treated with dignity and respect, and are encouraged to achieve their full potential,” she wrote.

Read Mark Fulks’s letter to Rep. John Ragan here: