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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Challenges Rule Change That Could Allow Universities to Discriminate Against Religious Student Groups

WASHINGTON, DC —The Rutherford Institute is pushing back against the Department of Education’s efforts to roll back First Amendment protections issued under the Trump administration, warning that it could result in discriminatory treatment and double standards by public colleges and universities against religious student groups.

The regulations in danger of being rescinded by the Biden administration require public colleges and universities that currently receive grant funding to treat religious student groups the same as other student organizations. However, Rutherford Institute attorneys caution that without the current protections in place, religious student groups at more than 1,200 public colleges and universities could face adverse action by administrators inclined to view the groups’ religious beliefs and statements of faith as violating the schools’ non‑discrimination policies.

“At times, it seems that mainstream America has become more tolerant toward every social group except those who are vocal about their religious beliefs,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Yet not only do religious students have a First Amendment right to exercise and express their religious beliefs freely and without fear of censorship, but religious student groups also have a right to be treated fairly and without discrimination and in the same manner as other student groups at a public school.”

In November 2020, Department of Education (DOE) regulations went into effect requiring public colleges and universities that receive government grants from the DOE to “not deny any religious student organization any right, benefit, or privilege that is otherwise afforded to other student organizations because of the religious student organization’s beliefs, practices, policies, speech, membership standards, or leadership standards, which are informed by sincerely-held religious beliefs.” Over 1,200 public colleges and universities are grant recipients. However, in February 2023, the DOE under the direction of the Biden administration sought to rescind those regulations, claiming that the regulations are unnecessary, confusing and burdensome to enforce.

In voicing its opposition to the proposed rule changes, The Rutherford Institute rebuffed the DOE’s arguments, noting the need for greater consistency across public institutions when it comes to First Amendment rights and pointing to the double standards that come to bear when schools fail to apply non‑discrimination policies uniformly, allowing some student groups to restrict membership or leadership based on certain secular criteria while penalizing religious student groups for adhering to their own faith-based criteria. The current regulations help to prevent such discriminatory treatment and double standards by public colleges and universities against religious student groups. As the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals explained in a case involving discrimination of a religious student group by public school educators, “under the First Amendment, our government must be scrupulously neutral when it comes to religion: It cannot treat religious groups worse than comparable secular ones…. The government cannot set double standards to the detriment of religious groups only.”

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, defends individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.


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