Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Equal treatment on campus

First Amendment | Federal government buttresses First Amendment rights
by Steve West
Posted 9/10/20, 01:05 pm

A new U.S. Department of Education rule offers much-needed protection for religious groups like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship operating on public university campuses.

In 2017, officials at Michigan’s Wayne State University stopped recognizing InterVarsity as a campus organization because it required its student leaders to ascribe to Christian beliefs. The move meant InterVarsity, which had existed at Wayne State for 75 years, couldn’t meet on campus, advertise through school media, benefit from student activity fees, or use school resources available to other groups. After InterVarsity sued, the university temporarily reinstated the organization until a court issues a final decision.

Similarly, in 2018, the University of Iowa ejected InterVarsity for allowing only Christians to hold student leadership positions. In September 2019, a federal court ruled university officials violated InterVarsity’s First Amendment rights. The university is still fighting in court.

Wayne State, the University of Iowa, and other schools might need to reassess their positions. Under the new Education Department rule, it can withhold federal grant money from schools if courts determine they violated protections found in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While all public universities must protect religious liberty and free speech rights, the new regulation clarifies that administrators must give religious student groups the same access to university resources as secular organizations to obtain an Education Department grant.

“This regulation was, unfortunately, necessary because some universities would give official recognition only to certain faith-based groups while rejecting others,” Greg Jao of InterVarsity said, adding that the new rule pushes schools to “encourage tolerance, pluralism, and religious diversity.”

While the First Amendment does not govern private universities, the new rule requires them to comply with their policies on freedom of expression to receive federal money. It also provides a shield for religious schools, asserting Title IX’s prohibition of discrimination based on sex—which, as a result of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, can include sexual orientation and gender identity—does not apply to colleges “controlled by a religious institution.”

“Students should not be forced to choose between their faith and their education, and an institution controlled by a religious organization should not have to sacrifice its religious beliefs to participate in department grants and programs,” U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said.

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Steve West

Steve is an attorney and freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet or at his blog.

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