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Religious Liberty | The U.S. Department of Education drops its ban on religious contractors
by Rachel Lynn Aldrich
Posted 3/19/19, 04:29 pm

The U.S. Department of Education announced last week it will stop enforcing a ban on working with religious contractors to provide services to at-risk private school students. In an official notice to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Education Secretary Betsy DeVos explained that under the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling in Trinity Lutheran vs. Comer, the ban was a form of religious discrimination.

U.S. law says that certain federally funded education services for at-risk children should be available to all students, even those who attend private school. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act required local school districts to identify private school students in their boundary areas who might need services and contract with outside groups to provide them. But the outside groups had to be secular, meaning organizations such as the Association of Christian Schools International could not participate, “even though the training we’d have been giving would have been, under the law, secular, neutral, and non-ideological,” said Thomas J. Cathey, a vice president at ACSI. The law created an awkward scenario in which religious schools had to work with secular service providers to access the federal funds, even if the same services were available from a religiously affiliated source such as ACSI.

In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer that the Missouri Department of Education engaged in religious discrimination when it rejected a church school’s application for a playground resurfacing program while accepting the applications of secular schools. DeVos applied the same reasoning to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, saying the U.S. Department of Education would no longer enforce the part of the law that “categorically excludes religious organizations simply because they are religious.”

Because of the change, Christian colleges can provide educational support and pedagogical training to teachers, and teachers who work for Christian schools can contract with school districts to provide after-school tutoring for at-risk and low-income students.

“Religious organizations such as our own, ACSI, or a religious teacher that’s teaching at a religious school, or a religious college, ought to have the same rights to provide services to the schools that need it,” Cathey said.

The notice was a response to President Donald Trump’s executive order last year instructing all executive agencies to reexamine their policies and procedures and how they might hinder religious liberty, according to Cathey.

Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, school districts still have control over the contractors they work with, and the contractors can only provide nonreligious services and cannot be affiliated with the school receiving the services. But now religious organizations have the same access to district contracts as other groups.

Associated Press/Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision Associated Press/Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision Morris Dees

Ousted

The Southern Poverty Law Center last week fired Morris Dees, its 82-year-old co-founder, for unspecified misconduct. The Montgomery, Ala.–based nonprofit organization was formed in 1971 by Dees, Joseph J. Levin Jr., and Julian Bond as a public-interest law firm and a champion of civil rights. In the 1970s and 1980s it doggedly went after the remaining vestiges of the Ku Klux Klan by filing lawsuits against the white supremacist group—cases that Dees, who had become a multimillionaire in the direct mail–order business by the time he was 32, parlayed into millions in donations and endowment funds for the SPLC.

In more recent years, the SPLC has become known for branding conservative organizations as “hate groups”—the “hate” being their support of marriage between one man and one woman. The SPLC lists Christian and pro-family groups such as the Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom alongside neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizations. In August 2017, Florida’s D. James Kennedy Ministries sued the SPLC for slander after it labeled the ministry a hate group. That case and two others filed by conservative groups are pending against the SPLC.

The organization in a statement gave no specific reason for Dees’ ouster, other than the SPLC was “committed to ensuring that our workplace embodies the values we espouse—truth, justice, equity, and inclusion” and that Dees failed to meet that standard. The Los Angeles Times reported that in a letter to their board of directors, many SPLC employees complained recently of “allegations of mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism” by the predominantly white leadership in the workplace. SPLC Director Richard Cohen said the organization had hired an outside group to assess the employees’ concerns.

Dees told The Montgomery Advertiser that he did not know why the SPLC fired him. According to the Alabama Political Reporter, however, numerous emails have surfaced that contain multiple accusations of sexual harassment against Dees as well as a cover-up by SPLC leadership. Dees denies the accusations. —Steve West

Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and other Democrats introduce the Equality Act in Washington, D.C., on March 13.

A constant drumbeat

Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate last week reintroduced the Equality Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) to the list of protected classes in the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has promised to make passage of the bill a priority this year, even though it has little chance of passing in the Republican-majority Senate or thwarting Trump administration efforts to strengthen religious liberty protections for those who believe in the Biblical definitions of marriage and sexuality.

But even though the bill likely doesn’t have the votes needed to pass this year, the constant drumbeat of the LGBT agenda—paired with the character assassination of those who disagree—can erode the resolve of those who object to SOGI policies because of their religious convictions, including conservative members of Congress. —S.W.

Minister’s housing allowance upheld

Pastors and churches scored a major victory last week when a federal appeals court in Chicago upheld the constitutionality of a minister’s housing allowance under the federal tax code.

In an unanimous ruling, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court decision and sustained the long-standing rule that exempts from taxation housing money that churches provide to ministers.

“Providing a tax exemption does not ‘connote sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the government in religious activity,’” the court wrote in its opinion. “Congressional action to minimize governmental interference with the decision-making process in religions … does not violate the Establishment Clause [of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution].”

This is not the first time the clergy housing allowance has been challenged. Some churches had already begun preparing ministers for the loss of the housing allowance. Yet at least in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana—the three states over which the 7th Circuit court has jurisdiction, this tax benefit is secure for now. —S.W.

Biblical reservations

Despite its ruling last year in favor of Colorado baker Jack Phillips, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear the appeal of a bed-and-breakfast owner who refused to rent a room to a lesbian couple because of her religious convictions.

In 2007, Phyllis Young, who is Catholic, told lesbians Diane Cervelli and Taeko Bufford that she was uncomfortable reserving a room for them at her Aloha Bed & Breakfast in Honolulu and canceled their reservation. Cervelli and Bufford filed complaints with the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission and sued Young in 2011. A state court then ruled that Young violated Hawaii’s public accomodations law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Last year, the Hawaii Supreme Court rejected Young’s appeal, leading to the reqest for a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court’s refusal to hear the case means the lower court’s ruling against Young stands and further litigation will determine what penalties she might face.

“Mrs. Young will rent a bedroom in her home to anyone, including those who are LGBT, but will not rent to any romantic partners other than a husband and wife,” her attorney, James Hochberg, said in a statement. “This kind of governmental coercion should disturb every freedom-loving American no matter where you stand on marriage.” —R.L.A.

Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Rachel is a World Journalism Institute graduate. Follow Rachel on Twitter @Rachel_Lynn_A.

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Comments

  • Laura W
    Posted: Fri, 03/22/2019 10:12 pm

    I'm not sure how I feel about the bed and breakfast case. It just seems like a difficult thing to have a consistent policy on, if she isn't personally interviewing all her guests to determine which ones are "romantic partners". How would she treat a pair of opposite-sex traveling companions who tell her they just want to share a room to save money? (It happens.) Or what if she knows they consider themselves homosexual, but not whether they're in a relationship with each other? I don't know if she was asking or not, but I would guess she wasn't if she had to cancel their reservation later? And it isn't really fair to them if she allows them to make the booking, and then cancels it later. (Presumably she discovered more information about them after the reservation was made?) I can see why a Christian would be uncomfortable providing them with a private room, but how far does it extend? Would a landlord be allowed to apply similar standards?

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