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New threat to religious liberty on campus


WORLD Radio - New threat to religious liberty on campus

The Biden administration proposes a rule to rescind regulation tying federal funds to respect for the First Amendment by seb_ra

Editor's note: click here for instructions of how to submit a comment on the suggested rule change

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It:

The future for protection of religious groups on college campuses.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Recently, the Biden administration proposed ending a Trump-era rule that tied federal funding for colleges and universities to respecting religious liberty on campus.

The Department of Education says that’s unnecessary because the First Amendment already protects free speech and free exercise of religion.

But WORLD reporter Steve West tells us that’s not entirely the case.

STEVE WEST, REPORTER: I think that the thing that will happen here is that in some schools where there is sort of an animus against religion, you'll find that the some of these groups are harassed basically by the administration, their recognition as an official student group is held up or threatened in some way, that's usually the case. And so if this rule doesn’t exist, these groups will be forced to take some action, get somebody to represent them, go to court, and try to fight this because they are protected by the First Amendment. But unfortunately, the First Amendment doesn't have any teeth, of course, unless you go to court and enforce it.

BROWN: Former President Trump issued an executive order in March 2019. In the words of the order, it set out to “improve free inquiry, transparency, and accountability at colleges and universities.”

Here he is at the signing ceremony.

TRUMP: Under the policy I'm announcing today, federal agencies will use their authority under various grant-making programs to ensure that public universities protect the First Amendment and First Amendment rights of their students or risk losing billion billions and billions of dollars of federal taxpayer dollars.

BROWN: The order has given student groups facing administration harassment an effective pathway for resolving issues.

WEST: Under that regulation, the groups can simply go to the administration, indicate to them that, there's this rule, and they're aware of it, and indicate that there's this rule that ties their federal funding to their respect for the First Amendment rights of these groups, and generally persuade these administrators to back down, or they can enlist the support of one of the religious liberty groups out there, like the Christian legal society, to help them in that respect. And generally that has happened because since 2020, there have no been been no investigations, no complaints made to the Department of Education, so they've had nothing to investigate. The reason they haven't is because administrators have wisely backed down when they realized that this rule is there.

BROWN: But if the Biden rule goes into effect, student groups that face challenges on campus would have to prove First Amendment violations in court.

This is a long and tedious process.

WEST: For example, back in 2021, InterVarsity prevailed in a court challenge to the University of Iowa non-discrimination requirement, where the school had basically singled out religious groups and said, you know, you have to have you have to open your leadership to everyone, whereas it didn't do that with all of the other groups on campus. And so InterVarsity prevailed. Also, before that the Business Leaders in Christ group prevailed as well. But that took a lot of litigation. I think those lawsuits started a couple of years before that, and wound their way through the courts until they finally won.

EICHER: Michael Tobin is a third-year law student at the University of Wisconsin. He leads the school’s chapter of the Christian Legal Society, CLS.

While the student organization has been on campus for a while, last year the school’s administration took issue with CLS’s constitution--in particular the requirement that student leaders of the Christian group must be Christian.

The school initially withdrew official recognition of CLS. But after the national CLS fought the decision the school reversed course. It granted CLS provisional status. In other words, this story isn’t over. Again, student leader Michael Tobin.

MICHAEL TOBIN: I think there's the expression for at least for government, there's no more permanent solution than a temporary solution. So on the one hand, it could be something along those lines of the most politically expedient way to resolve the issue when you've got some people who want to deny our application, some people just wanna get rid of the issue, is to offer this temporary license. And who knows, maybe year after year, they might continue to grant us temporary status. It wouldn't shock me. It's also entirely possible, particularly as the regulation in question is now somewhat imperiled, that they might come back with a vengeance.

BROWN: But the regulation hasn’t been overturned yet. Biden’s proposed change is in a period of public comment until March 24th.

When WORLD’s Steve West checked the comments last week, only 24 people had contributed. But that number is now over 900. And CLS’s Kim Colby is hoping for even more.

Again, Steve West.

WEST: You know, she said, If you've seen the benefits of religious groups, you know, if you've been a part of one if your children have been a part of one, or if you're currently part of one, just say that and say what it's meant to you, you don't have to be lawyers. You don't have to be you don't have to have all of the right words. Just say what it's meant to you to be able to be in a student group like this.

EICHER: Steve West is WORLD’s legal reporter. If these stories are important to you, you might want to receive his weekly Liberties e-newsletter which is packed with strong reporting on these stories delivered to your inbox. And the newsletter is free. We’ll place a sign-up link in today’s transcript.

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