Do religious groups on public campuses have the right to choose leaders who adhere to their beliefs and behavioral tenets? Should religious campus groups at public institutions enjoy the same rights and accommodations that benefit their secular counterparts?
Common sense and the U.S. Constitution say yes. The Biden administration says no.
The administration wants to strip religious campus groups at public institutions of another protection against campus authorities who unjustly pressure and discriminate against groups whose religious beliefs they disagree with.
The Department of Education is planning to revoke the Religious Liberty and Free Inquiry rule, which protects religious student organizations from being hassled by university administrators who object to their beliefs. The rule was adopted by the Trump administration to ensure that public institutions uphold fundamental First Amendment rights guaranteed by the Constitution. According to the rule, public colleges found guilty of denying, strictly because of their faith, religious student groups the same accommodations that other student organizations enjoy would no longer qualify for Education Department grant programs or state programs — but could still access federal financial aid.
The administration says that the rule is not necessary to protect First Amendment rights on campuses — it tells those who think their rights have been violated to sue — and says it is “unduly burdensome” for the Education Department and causes confusion for the institutions.
As for the first piece — that the rule is unnecessary — many of the 58,000 comments to a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued by the department in February say otherwise — as does recent campus history.
Republicans on the House Committee for Education and the Workforce wrote in a comment: “The proposed rollback of these protections lacks any compelling rationale, and sends a dangerous message to students and university administrators that religious liberty is not a priority.” The letter continued: “[Institutions of higher education] pay lip service to neutrality; yet, at the same time, religious student organizations face burdensome restrictions, and in some cases, specific demands for groups to fundamentally change the nature of their beliefs and student leadership to receive recognition by a college or university.”
Wrote Advancing American Freedom, founded by Mike Pence, in a public comment: “The ‘Free Inquiry Rule,’ from the Trump-Pence administration, is a necessary and proper means of protecting the free speech and free exercise rights of religious student organizations and their members at public institutions of higher education.”
Payton Saunders, president of the Christian Legal Society at Texas Tech University School of Law, commented that, although Texas Tech has supported her organization:
I have friends across the nation who attend schools with both students and administration that are blatantly hostile towards religious beliefs. I have friends who are scared to even say they are Christian, let alone join any sort of student group. The current regulations benefit college administrators and students and should not be rescinded. Religious student organizations should be protected from government interference.
Recent campus history is replete with examples of antagonism toward religious groups. The most egregious indict schools that prohibit religious groups from requiring their leaders to be fellow believers. In 2021, a national Christian group, Ratio Christi, was denied official status on the campus of the University of Houston–Clear Lake because it insisted on appointing group leaders who adhered to the organization’s values and mission. This was done even though the school allows many other campus clubs to require members or leaders to adhere to specific mission statements and values and other qualifications.
The same thing happened, to the same group, at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. The Ratio Christi branch there was denied official status, which allows it to benefit from the same student fees other groups enjoy, because university officials disagreed with its religious beliefs. Ditto at the University of Iowa, where a different group, Business Leaders in Christ, was kicked off campus for requiring its leaders to be orthodox Christians.
In all three instances, the religious group prevailed, but not without either threatening suit or actually filing suit against the school in question.
To belabor the obvious, the danger of not protecting leadership qualifications or beliefs is that activists who disagree with a club’s viewpoint, such as faithful adherence to Christianity, including to Christianity’s historic proscription of homosexual activity or its commitment to traditional marriage, comprising one man and one woman, could weasel into a group’s leadership and change the direction and compromise the message of the club.
A few additional snapshots of the threat to religious campus groups:
• Just last month, Kyle Duncan, who was a champion of religious liberty before President Donald Trump appointed him to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, was shouted down by intolerant activists at Stanford University and prohibited from addressing a conservative group.
• In 2022, three Christian students at the University of Idaho law school, along with a professor, were ordered by the university to have “no contact” with a female, lesbian-identified student who was upset by answers the students gave for why their organization, the Christian Legal Society, required its officers to affirm that marriage is between one man and one woman.
• Also in 2022, a Christian grad student at Southern Illinois–Edwardsville was ordered by the university to have “no contact,” either on or off campus, with three fellow grad students who disagreed with her viewpoint.
• In 2021, a Christian group at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln was told that the university would not pay, out of student fees, a Christian philosopher for a lecture unless the group also invited “another spokesperson with a different ideological perspective,” even though the school spends, according to Alliance Defending Freedom, “hundreds of thousands of dollars in student fees each year to pay for speakers … on topics like sexual orientation, gender identity, reproductive justice, social justice, police reform, and political activism.”
As John Stonestreet and Kasey Leander at Breakpoint opine, the government’s real problem with the Religious Liberty and Free Inquiry rule “has to do with worldview. In their view, religious liberty is too expansive as is, and ensuring it on publicly funded campuses presents a threat to more ‘marginalized’ groups.”
Continue the Breakthrough writers:
Protecting religious expression is vital, not just for Christians, but for everyone. Conscience rights are pre-political rights and provide the foundation on which every other liberty is built. Protecting that foundation on campuses requires, at minimum, allowing religious student groups to meet on campus, to use allocated student funding like every other group, to choose leaders who adhere to the stated beliefs and values that define the group, and to think and speak as freely as other students.
Revocation of the Religious Liberty and Free Inquiry rule bubbles to the surface in a college environment already roiled by the administration’s overhaul of Title IX rules that portends more chaos in sexual harassment claims and exhibits a shocking lack of courage to protect women by keeping the door open for biological men to compete in women’s sports.
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