Back in January, American Atheists and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued the Department of Education and then-Secretary Betsy DeVos over a policy forcing colleges to “financially support religious student groups that discriminate.”
They were 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 lawsuit claimed this order overstepped the bounds of what the Department of Education could do; even beyond that, it violated the law. They said the rule was just another attempt to “pander to Christian nationalists and weaponize religious freedom to justify discrimination.” (The groups were suing on behalf of the Secular Student Alliance and Declan Galli, an LGBTQ student at California Polytechnic State University, who said getting rid of those non-discrimination policies in order to maintain federal funding would impact his own safety and mental health.)
There’s now an interesting update to that case.
Yesterday, the Department of Education announced that they planned to rescind the rules that DeVos put in place:
… The Department is currently conducting a review of those regulations while keeping in mind the importance of several key elements, including First Amendment protections, nondiscrimination requirements, and the promotion of inclusive learning environments for all students.
Following completion of our review, we anticipate publishing a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register to propose rescinding parts of the Free Inquiry Rule. The public will have an opportunity to comment on the Department’s regulatory proposal through a formal notice-and-comment period.
It’s hard to read between the lines there, but what the DoE is saying is that colleges and universities that receive federal funding wouldn’t be forced to grant special privileges to religious groups. It’s not a done deal just yet, but American Atheists and AU see this as a victory-in-waiting. In fact, after speaking with the DoE, they agreed to ask the courts to stay their lawsuit — put it on hold for now — while the government goes through the process of rescinding the rules.
Richard B. Katskee, vice president and legal director of Americans United: “We applaud the Department of Education for its willingness to reconsider this harmful regulation, and for sending the message to colleges, universities and their students that this wrong may soon be righted. We anticipate that the Biden administration will agree with us that discrimination has no place in our public colleges and universities — even if religion is used to justify it.”
Alison Gill, vice president for legal and policy at American Atheists: “No college should ever face the threat of losing federal dollars for refusing to fund discrimination. Nor should religious student groups receive special privileges to discriminate. We welcome the Biden Administration’s movement toward rescinding these unconscionable regulations. Now more than ever, colleges should fully implement their nondiscrimination policies in order to create a safe and welcoming learning environment for all students.”
Kevin Bolling, executive director of the Student Secular Alliance: “Nondiscrimination policies help ensure all students in the campus community are protected and provide a positive educational environment. We appreciate the U.S. Department of Education’s willingness to hear real-life examples of how LGBTQ+, nonreligious, and minority-religious students are already being negatively impacted on campus by this discriminatory rule. We also appreciate the U.S. Department of Education’s statement that it is reviewing DeVos’ regulation for rescission. No student should be forced to pay to be discriminated against.”
This is what happens when the government is more interested in doing what’s best for public schools and students instead of appeasing a right-wing religious mob. And obviously a lawsuit helps. One source close to the discussions confirmed to me that the two organizations, in addition to the lawsuit, put pressure on the administration to make this change through meetings with government officials. So while it’s the right thing to do, nudging from church/state separation groups also helped move things along.
To be clear, this move won’t affect private Christian schools and it won’t stop religious groups from organizing on campus. All it would do is allow schools to hold religious clubs to the same standards as all the other ones. A Christian club could still discriminate all it wants; it just shouldn’t be rewarded for it by having access to all the perks afforded to groups playing by the school’s rules. That shouldn’t even be a controversial idea.
(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)