American Atheists and Americans United for Separation of Church and State are giving the Trump administration a going away present: They’re suing the Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos in response to a policy that forces colleges to “financially support religious student groups that discriminate.”
They’re referring to a rule published last September, stemming from an executive order Donald Trump signed in March of 2019, which said schools could lose federal funding if they applied non-discrimination policies to religious groups.
In other words, if all registered student organizations were rightly forbidden from discriminating against members on the basis of religion, race, sexual orientation, or gender identity, then Trump and DeVos were saying religious student groups should be exempt from all that. They wanted those groups to have all the perks of being an official campus group… without having to play by the same rules as everyone else.
“The Trump Administration is forcing colleges to choose between protecting students and losing federal funding, or allowing discrimination against students in order to keep federal financial assistance. That is unfair, unlawful, and just plain wrong. Discrimination has no place in our public colleges and universities,” said Richard B. Katskee, vice president and legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Discriminating against any students in the name of religion jeopardizes religious freedom for all students.”
“This unlawful rule was part of the Trump Administration’s campaign to pander to Christian nationalists and weaponize religious freedom to justify discrimination,” said Alison Gill, vice president for legal and policy at American Atheists. “Freedom of religion is a fundamental American value that protects everyone’s right to their beliefs, as long as they don’t harm others. It does not give people or organizations the right to ignore civil rights protections and discriminate.”
The groups are suing on behalf of the Secular Student Alliance and Declan Galli, an LGBTQ student at California Polytechnic State University, who says getting rid of those non-discrimination policies (in order to maintain federal funding) would impact his own safety and mental health.
“This isn’t a hypothetical situation. Last year, a professor and a dozen students rallied on campus, shouting that being gay is a sin. This Department of Education regulation allows these same students to start a group that would discriminate against me while still receiving funding from the fees I’m required to pay,” added Galli.
“No students should ever be forced to subsidize clubs that discriminate against them. Students who are LGBTQ, religious minorities, nonreligious, or otherwise marginalized will especially be harmed by this rule,” said Kevin Bolling, executive director of the Student Secular Alliance, the largest nonreligious student organization, with over 300 chapters in colleges and high schools across the country.
The groups are demanding that the new rules be declared unconstitutional and that the courts award the plaintiffs accordingly. Even with a new incoming administration, the effects of the previous one don’t suddenly disappear. If there’s no legislative fix, then there needs to be a legal one.
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