by Jorge Gomez • 5 min read
Today, First Liberty is submitting a public comment opposing a Biden administration policy that will roll back religious freedom protections for students on college campuses.
The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) recently proposed to rescind regulations that requires institutions of higher education to treat religious student groups equally to other student groups. Under current regulations, colleges and universities can lose access to federal grant funds if they restrict the activities and speech of religious organizations on campus.
These helpful regulations were the result of President Trump’s 2019 Executive Order on Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities. It was put in place to prevent universities from censoring students’ religious speech and denying religious student groups the same benefits that other student groups received, such as official recognition and access to school facilities. It required universities to allow an open, diverse and intellectually engaging environment consistent with the principles found in the First Amendment.
In 2020, then Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said the DOE promulgated the regulations to ensure religious students were not “forced to choose between their faith and their education.” She also said it would protect religious universities from being turned away for federal funding because of their religious affiliation.
Biden’s DOE, however, says these protections are “not necessary.” Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education, Nasser H. Paydar, claims they imposed an “unduly burdensome role” for the department to investigate when public institutions deny religious student organizations the same benefits they give to other student groups.
The administration appears to be willfully ignoring the discrimination and hostile culture that religious students and groups increasingly confront on college campuses. Repealing these regulations could spell disaster for religious liberty. It could lead to countless faith-based, student-led groups across the country being wrongfully excluded and censored because of their beliefs.
Examples abound showing that religious discrimination and anti-religious bias are serious and ongoing problems in our nation’s colleges.
Most recently, First Liberty successfully defended the Free Exercise Coalition (FEC), a religious student organization that was created to promote the free exercise of religion in higher education. The group applied to establish its inaugural campus location, but the law school’s Student Bar Association rejected its application. We sent a letter to the school explaining that the First Amendment prohibits public universities from treating religious student groups disfavorably. Finally, after receiving our letter, the university granted FEC official recognition as a student group at the University of New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce School of Law.
Another First Liberty client, Inara Ramazanova, was wrongfully evicted from Oakland University’s campus housing simply because she shared information on social media about religious accommodations for COVID-19 vaccinations.
A recent article by the Daily Citizen provided a thorough list of public colleges and universities that have been guilty of creating unconstitutional restrictions on free speech or that have denied Christian clubs official recognition on campus because of ideological disagreements over the biblical positions they espouse. Here are just a few:
Censoring religious people and speech betrays the essence of what America’s colleges and universities were meant to be: places that encourage open dialogue, intellectual discourse and diverse viewpoints. It’s a disservice to our country when students and organizations are treated more harshly or unfairly simply because they express a religious viewpoint or seek to live in a way that’s consistent with their beliefs. It’s also illegal. Federal law makes clear that its unlawful to discriminate against groups and individuals because of their religion.
People of faith have a right to live out their faith on campus and should not be treated like second-class citizens. First Liberty stands ready to defend religious students and groups whose religious freedom is threatened or attacked.