Trump-era protections for religious students, groups at public universities under threat

The Secular Student Network is suing to overturn a Trump-era rule protecting religious expression at public colleges and universities.

The rule now under threat requires public institutions to treat religious student organizations fairly.

The Secular Student Alliance has issued a legal challenge to the Trump-era religious freedom rule that prohibits public colleges and universities from discriminating against religious student groups. 

The Department of Education instated the rule under former Education Department Secretary Betsy DeVos. Under this rule, “a public institution must not deny to any student organization whose stated mission is religious in nature any right, benefit, or privilege that is otherwise afforded to other student organizations at the public institution,” according to the Department’s fact sheet

In other words, if a public university recognizes secular student groups and grants them access to facilities and funding, then it must do the same for religious student groups. 

[RELATED: NLRB takes on Catholic college’s religious freedom]

The Secular Student Alliance says that the rule would force students, particularly LGBTQ students, to have some of their student fees go to clubs where they say they are not welcome or where they are actively discriminated against.

“This unlawful rule was part of the Trump Administration’s campaign to pander to Christian nationalists and weaponize religious freedom to justify discrimination,” American Atheists Vice President for Legal and Policy said. “Freedom of religion is a fundamental American value that protects everyone’s right to their beliefs, as long as they don’t harm others. It does not give people or organizations the right to ignore civil rights protections and discriminate.”

Tyson Langhofer, Senior Counsel and Director of the Center for Academic Freedom at Alliance Defending Freedom took issue with that characterization of the First Amendment, telling Campus Reform: 

”Whether the group is Christian, Muslim, conservative, or liberal, student groups are free to require their leaders to adhere to their beliefs. The Secular Student Alliance’s lawsuit against the Department of Education threatens First Amendment freedoms for all students and attempts to compel conformity on campus. Universities are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas where the freedom to express and share beliefs with others is encouraged, not shut down and silenced. The DOE rule is right to require universities to respect these First Amendment freedoms, and ADF is committed to defending free speech on campus,” Langhofer said. 

[RELATED: Harvard’s new religious freedom clinic hasn’t opened yet. Already, it’s under attack.]

The Secular Student Alliance did not respond to a request for comment. 

Follow the writer on Twitter: @AngelaLMorabito