Will religious colleges be allowed to fulfill their mission?
Recent court decision protects students who want to live out their faith
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The college years are a defining season for many young people that comes with mistakes and lessons, new experiences and perspectives, learning who you are and what you want to do with your life. College shapes you, and to choose the right fit, teenagers consider myriad factors, including the influence of their parents, their religious beliefs, and finances. Money often plays an outsized role in the decision-making. For students of faith, pursuing an academic degree runs parallel to pursuing spiritual maturity.
Indeed, religious colleges serve a critical function in American society, offering an education framed in the tradition, values, and principles of the faith. A place where young people can pursue higher education surrounded by faculty and peers who share a common mission and beliefs. A place where a student can receive more than an education of the mind, but one of the heart and soul too, holistically preparing him or her for a future career, marriage and family, and being a thriving member of society.
Yet religious education continues to be among the most threatened spheres of society. Christian colleges, in particular, are a growing target by government officials and activist groups. Rather than letting religious universities peacefully exist, government officials and powerful interest groups insist religious schools must conform to their set of beliefs. The government just can’t seem to stop discriminating against and punishing religious institutions, violating their rights.
In Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education, activists sought to strip all students at private religious colleges of federal financial aid. An activist group filed the lawsuit, which was intended to prevent any student from using tuition grants, student loans, and any other federal financial assistance at schools that operate according to biblical views about human sexuality.
So Alliance Defending Freedom asked a federal court to allow three Christian colleges—representative of more than 1,000 others across the country—to intervene in the lawsuit and defend Title IX, which among other things, allows students to use federal financial aid at private religious schools that operate according to their beliefs. The court allowed the religious institutions to intervene, granting them the opportunity to share the stories of the students and families who were suffering because of this discriminatory attack.
And the court did far more than just listen to the cry for religious freedom in higher education. The U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon just ruled to dismiss Hunter outright and continue to allow students to receive financial aid at schools that share their religious beliefs. The court correctly concluded that Title IX equally protects federal aid for the student pursuing an MBA at Harvard University as it does for the student pursuing the same degree at Corban University, one of the Christian universities ADF represents.
Religious academic institutions and the students who want to attend them shouldn’t seem threatening to anyone. They are simply another education option that not only provides the opportunity for families to send their children to schools that align with their faith and values, but also produces graduates who add to America’s richly diverse society. As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in another religious-liberty-in-education case, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, “religious education is vital to many faiths practiced in the United States,” including the Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish traditions. The court continued, saying that for religious schools, “educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission.”
Allowing students to pursue their academic and career calling in a community where others share their faith is essential. Many students hope to continue to learn in a postsecondary community designed to nurture faith and cultivate calling. Atheist, Muslim, and Christian students are all equally eligible under the U.S. Constitution to receive federal financial assistance. The government cannot tell religious schools that, to continue accepting low- to middle-income students who require financial aid, they need to violate their core beliefs. No one should be punished for holding to their sincerely held religious beliefs in college.
Thankfully, the victory in Hunter will give hostile government officials and activists pause before they punish people and institutions of faith simply for exercising their religious beliefs.
We must protect every American’s right to live out his or her faith—including in college. For many students, that season of life is transformational as their faith becomes their own, and no longer just their parents’. Christian universities and seminaries like the ones we represent prepare young men and women to enter Christ-centered ministry—in the church and, most often, outside of it. And they equip students to pursue the ultimate calling in their life and work—making a difference in the world for Jesus Christ.
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