InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and other faith-based student groups are praising a Department of Education final rule issued Wednesday that they say will protect campus student organizations’ right to choose leaders who share their religious beliefs.
The regulation — Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities — comes in response to an executive order issued in March 2019 signed by President Donald Trump that vowed to withhold federal research grants from colleges and universities that are hostile to First Amendment rights of students.
According to the department, the new rule “ensures the equal treatment and constitutional rights of religious student organizations at public institutions and provides clarity for faith-based institutions” concerning Title IX discrimination law.
“[T]he Final Rule prohibits discrimination against religious student organizations because of their beliefs, practices, policies, speech, membership standards, or leadership standards, which are informed by sincerely held religious beliefs,” a two-page summary of the rule explains.
“[A] religious student organization would have the same rights as other student organizations at the public institution to receive official recognition, to use the institution’s facilities, and to receive student fee funds.”
The final rule comes as some faith-based campus groups across the country have been denied recognition by universities for having policies that require leaders of the organizations to adhere to their statements of faith, which has led to several legal battles.
In 2018, the University of Iowa derecognized dozens of student groups that the school deemed to have discriminatory leadership policies. Lawsuits were filed by InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship and Business Leaders in Christ, a group that was derecognized because its statement of faith prohibited leaders from engaging in same-sex relationships.
A federal judge ruled against the school’s policy last year, arguing that the policy is not “viewpoint neutral” if it's selectively applied to restrict the leadership and membership requirements of some student groups but not others.
“This regulation was, unfortunately, necessary because some universities would give official recognition only to certain faith-based groups, while rejecting others,” Greg Jao, director of external relations for InterVarsity Fellowship, said in a statement.
“What made the student groups who were denied recognition different? They expected their student leaders to agree with their religious beliefs. The recognized groups did not. Universities should welcome all religious groups equally, in order to encourage tolerance, pluralism and religious diversity.”
The new rule states that public colleges and universities “must comply with the First Amendment as a requirement to receive Department grants.”
“Accordingly, the Department will rely upon a final, non-default judgment by a state or federal court to determine whether a public or private institution has violated these material grant conditions,” the summary of the rule explains. “A public or private institution must report any such final, non-default judgment to the Department no more than 45 calendar days after such judgment is entered.”
“The Department may pursue existing remedies for an institution’s noncompliance with these material conditions,” the summary continues. “Existing remedies include imposing special conditions, temporarily withholding cash payments pending correction of the deficiency, suspension or termination of a federal award, and potentially debarment.”
The Education Department’s final rule was created after the department reviewed more than 17,000 public comments. The regulatory proposal was introduced in January.
"This administration is committed to protecting the First Amendment rights of students, teachers, and faith-based institutions,” DeVos said in a statement.
“Students should not be forced to choose between their faith and their education, and an institution controlled by a religious organization should not have to sacrifice its religious beliefs to participate in Department grants and programs.”
Ismail Royer, director of the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team for the Religious Freedom Institute, also praised the ruling.
“This new regulation is an important policy for Muslim student organizations because it allows them to select their own leaders and define their own mission by their faith's principles,” Royer, said in a statement. “This right should be reserved for all student religious organizations, and not usurped by university officials based on their own shifting, unpredictable standards.”
Jimmy McGee, president of the Impact Movement, a Christian campus ministry focused on students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, said in a statement that faith traditions “uniquely support and sustain students of color on campus” and that their “beliefs are not interchangeable or negotiable.”
“Universities that want to support students of color need to support their religious traditions,” McGee added.
Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for government affairs and Washington director for Agudath Israel of America, stressed the importance of religious groups in college campuses. In a statement shared with The Christian Post, he said, "Religious groups should be encouraged on campus. It simply defies logic, and undermines their very effectiveness, when religious groups are forced to forfeit leadership policies that better insure adherence to their religious mission, beliefs and practices.”