President Joe Biden’s Department of Education wants to eliminate protections for religious student organizations, but Republicans in both the Senate and the House are introducing a bill that, if passed, would punish higher education institutions for discriminating against on-campus faith-based groups.
The Equal Campus Access Act of 2023 from Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Rep. Tim Walberg of Michigan would ensure that any universities or colleges that discriminate against student organizations because of those groups’ “religious beliefs, practices, speech, leadership standards, or standards of conduct” will be barred from receiving taxpayer dollars.
Lankford and Scott along with 15 other GOP senators also penned a letter to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on Monday demanding he withdraw a proposed rule repeal and preserve the protections the Trump administration solidified for religious groups to ensure they are not “subjected to unconstitutional discrimination.”
“First Amendment rights apply to all individuals and organizations on a public college campus regardless of whether their beliefs are favored by the government,” the Republicans wrote.
The legislation and letter are designed to combat Biden’s DOE, which announced in February that it plans to repeal a Trump-era rule that protected faith-based student organizations from discrimination by universities.
In 2019, then-President Donald Trump issued an executive order demanding restrictions on the flow of taxpayer dollars to colleges and universities that fail “to promote free and open debate on college and university campuses.” Shortly after that in 2020, Trump’s DOE debuted a rule that required any public institution that receives federal funds “to not deny a religious student organization any of the rights, benefits, or privileges that are otherwise afforded to other student organizations.”
Before Trump’s rule, higher education institutions in at least 37 states threatened Christian, Muslim, Sikh, and Mormon student organizations’ funds, access to resources, and presence on campus due to their faiths.
Biden’s DOE claims the rule is not “necessary to protect the First Amendment right to free speech and free exercise of religion” and “created confusion among institutions.” Yet the agency provided no examples “of formal complaints of confusion from a college or university” during or after a bipartisan briefing with congressional staff.
The DOE also complained that the rule placed an “unduly burdensome role for the Department to investigate allegations regarding [institutions of higher education]’s treatment of religious student organizations,” but, as Republicans noted in the letter, the DOE devotes plenty of time and resources to other antidiscrimination causes.
For example, the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights is allowed $130,000 and hundreds of employees to punish institutions they deem guilty of race-based discrimination. The disparity in willingness, the GOP senators say, proves the DOE’s lack of interest in protecting religious Americans’ First Amendment rights.
“In abdicating its responsibility to protect the constitutional rights of religious student organizations, the Department is abandoning religious student organizations to address these discrimination claims in costly, time-consuming litigation.”
If the DOE gets its way and the rule is finalized, Republicans and dozens of religious groups such as the Christian Legal Society, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Coalition for Jewish Values say it would “make it harder for religious student organizations to exist on public college campuses.”
To put it simply, DOE’s intention to undo the rule would not only leave religious groups ripe for discrimination but would remove any threat of recourse from the federal government for the schools that exclude them.
“It is an alarming admission that the Department would rather allow discrimination against religious student organizations than ensure compliance with First Amendment protections as a condition of receiving grants,” the Republicans concluded.