In 2015, when officials at Claflin University in South Carolina learned senior honors student Kamaria Downs was pregnant, they kicked her out of the dorms and told her to move off campus.
“I was taken aback,” the now 23-year-old elementary school teacher from Greenville told NBC News. “First, I wasn’t even sure how they found out, and second, they were not offering me any type of housing.”
For Downs, who had pre-paid for her dorm room and meal plan, living at home more than two and a half hours away from her Orangeburg school wasn’t an option. So she ended up living with a professor, and wasn’t refunded for her dorm costs.
But after graduation, she fought against the discriminatory policy at the small historically black college — and won.
“I had to conceal my pregnancy from everyone and the university made me feel ashamed to be pregnant,” said Downs. “I had to stand up. It wasn’t right.”
And, at a time when religious colleges and universities are seeking waivers to the federal civil rights law Title IX in record numbers, Downs persuaded the college to change its long-standing policy on pregnancy.
Downs and Claflin reached a confidential settlement in August, one of the first Title IX cases involving pregnancy or parenting discrimination.
Title IX, enacted in 1972, prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of sex, including pregnancy and parental status. All public and private schools that receive federal funds must comply.
Kimmel praised the university for averting a lawsuit.
“I have to give kudos to Claflin,” she told NBC News. “They really set a good example. They took the high road and took steps to address the issue as soon as they understood what the problem was.”
The university now provides reasonable accommodations to pregnant students in the same way it does for students with disabilities or temporary medical conditions. They have also funded additional Title IX training to students, faculty and staff.
Many other religious institutions have sought waivers to Title IX, mostly in opposition to LGBT protections, but the exemptions apply to pregnancy and parenting policies, as well.
Since 2013, the Department of Education has granted 56 religious colleges in 26 states waivers that allow them to expel students or fire employees who are unmarried, pregnant or have had an abortion, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Claflin spokesman George Johnson Jr. told NBC News that the university “appreciates” Downs for “bringing her concerns to our attention” and its new policy is “consistent with our ethical commitment to treat everyone equitably and respectfully.”