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Education Department Finalizes Religious Freedom Rule

September 10, 2020
 
 

The Department of Education on Wednesday finalized its new rule requiring among other things that public universities uphold the First Amendment, including freedom of speech and academic freedom. Private colleges and universities are required to follow their own policies on freedom of expression.

Initially proposed in January, the final version of the Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities rule also prohibits institutions from denying faith-based student groups "any of the rights, benefits, or privileges that other student groups enjoy."

In addition, the rule codifies how educational institutions can show they are exempt from Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972's sex discrimination rules because they are religious institutions. Religious groups were already exempt, but regulations have until now not defined what it means to be controlled by a religious organization.

The rule will take effect in about 60 days.

"These regulations hold public institutions accountable for protecting the First Amendment rights of students and student organizations," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement. "And they require private colleges and universities that promise their students and faculty free expression, free inquiry, and diversity of thought to live up to those ideals."

The rule was praised by a number of faith-based groups, including Impact Movement, a Christian campus ministry at historically Black colleges and universities. “Our beliefs are not interchangeable or negotiable. Universities that want to support students of color need to support their religious traditions,” Jimmy McGee, the ministry’s president, said in a statement.

“Too many institutions violate student and faculty free speech rights as a matter of course,” said Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “Hopefully, the additional risk of losing federal grant money will encourage them to rethink their practices.”

But Dena Sher, associate vice president of public policy at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the rule will prevent universities from keeping religious student groups from discriminating based on religion, race, sexual orientation and other factors.

"This rule creates troubling exemptions for religious clubs at public colleges and universities, and the result is discrimination underwritten by tax dollars and tuition fees," Sher said.

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