The Department of Education (DOE) has proposed rescinding a 2020 regulation which protected the rights of religious student organizations on college campuses. This proposal has been met with concern from some advocates, who argue that existing rules protecting First Amendment rights to free speech should provide sufficient protection for such organizations.
The DOE's position is that the judicial branch should be responsible for determining whether an institution improperly restricts First Amendment rights, and if such discrimination were found to exist, religious organizations would still have recourse to seek relief in the courts.
Nevertheless, DOE Secretary Dr. Leecia Paydar clarified that this proposed rescission would not affect the department’s dedication to protecting religious freedom, emphasizing their commitment to promoting First Amendment protections at public institutions of higher education.
In September 2020, when the original rule was implemented by the Trump administration, Keisha Russell from First Liberty Institute noted that it was “a necessary and important step to protect students of all faiths and perspectives on campus” as many universities had imposed stricter standards on religious groups than other student groups, such as stripping them of communication access through college emails, websites, and events; in addition to denying them funding.
Under the proposed rule change, if an institution is found guilty of restricting religious organizations' right to free speech or activities, they could risk losing federal funding. As such, it is essential for these public institutions to follow any stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech in order to remain eligible for federal grants.
The DOE is requesting feedback on this proposed elimination from stakeholders and members of the public alike as they seek a balance between protection of student organization's rights and refraining from creating an overly burdensome role for their department when investigating alleged cases of discrimination against such groups. It will be important for all stakeholders involved in this discussion to consider the implications which any potential changes may have on students' freedom of religion before a final decision is reached in order to ensure justice prevails.