Senate Republicans introduced legislation to codify a rule protecting the freedom for religious groups to assemble on college campuses as the Biden administration seeks to reverse them.
The Trump administration introduced the Religious Liberty and Free Inquiry Rule three years ago in order to ensure that public universities do not deny religious student organizations “any right, benefit, or privilege,” such as student activities funding and access to campus facilities, “that is otherwise afforded to other student organizations at the public institution.” Universities which are found in violation of such rights risk losing federal grants under the current rule; the Biden administration, however, proposed a reversal of the rule last month.
Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), and 14 other Senate Republicans introduced the Equal Campus Access Act to enshrine the current rule into federal law. The lawmakers contended in a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona that reversing the rule would leave religious student groups open to violations of First Amendment liberties.
“Student organizations, including religious ones, play an important role on campus and in the lives of college students. Unfortunately, the proposed rule threatens students’ ability to grow and learn while practicing and observing their respective faiths,” the letter said. “Students desire organized fellowship on college campuses to learn and practice their faith with like-minded students. They should be afforded the same rights as any other student organization on campus, not discriminated against merely because of their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
The Education Department asserted that the previous rule should be reversed because the policy is “not necessary” to protect free speech and free exercise of religion, tends to create “confusion among institutions,” and prescribes an “unduly burdensome role” for officials to investigate allegations of mistreatment. The lawmakers countered that the Education Department has failed to “provide any examples” of universities formally complaining about the confusing nature of the rules and asserted that calling the protection of religious freedom “unduly burdensome” represents an “alarming admission” from the agency.
Prominent nationwide religious organizations, such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Reformed University Fellowship, and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, recently drafted their own letter in support of the Equal Campus Access Act. “The right to assemble together based on religiously informed beliefs is foundational to a free and truly pluralistic society,” the entities wrote.
The proposed rule reversal is one of several Biden administration policies that critics consider a threat to religious liberty. House Republicans pushed earlier this week to guarantee that the text of the forthcoming federal budget prohibits agencies from taking discriminatory action against people or organizations on the basis of a “sincerely held religious belief, or moral conviction, that marriage is, or should be recognized as, a union of one man and one woman.”
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The call for explicit religious liberty protections in the budget comes after President Joe Biden endorsed the Respect for Marriage Act, which enshrines same-sex marriage protections into federal law in accordance with the Supreme Court’s opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges. Democratic lawmakers recruited 39 Republicans in the House and 10 Republicans in the Senate to support the bill, which became law in December.