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New DeVos Education Regulation Forces Universities to Fund Discriminatory Religious Student Groups and Weakens Free Speech on College Campuses

Washington D.C.—Today, the national civil rights organization American Atheists condemned the Department of Education, led by Secretary Betsy DeVos, for publishing a final rule that, despite its claims of protecting free speech on college campuses, undermines free speech and enables discrimination. The regulation requires public and private colleges and universities to fund discriminatory religious groups that discriminate against would-be members. Under this new rule, the Department would especially privilege the speech and activities of religious student groups rather than applying the law neutrally.

Many public colleges have all-comers policies, which stipulate that student groups must be open to all students in order for them to receive funding. However, with this final rule, the Department of Education is trying to force universities to abandon this Supreme Court validated policy and instead allow religious student groups to set membership and leadership requirements based on discriminatory beliefs.

“College is a time of exploration and identity development, and colleges have the duty to foster an open environment for such flourishing,” said Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Policy at American Atheists, who submitted comments opposing the rule earlier this year. “However, the Department of Education is trying to turn inclusive student groups that welcome all people from all walks of life into closed-member groups that discriminate against anyone unlike themselves.”

“If it comes out that a student is LGBTQ, a single mother, or had an abortion, DeVos’s rule would allow the group to eject the student, discriminating against that person, all while receiving funding from taxpayers and other students through the public university. Such a policy would silence dissenters and discourage students from being open about their different identities, weakening free speech on college campuses,” added Gill.

The Department of Education also absurdly claims that allowing closed-member groups to receive funding would “help,” for example, LGBTQ students, since they “would be able to organize student organizations that limited membership to only students who identify as LGBTQ.”

“Religious groups want to discriminate, so Betsy DeVos incorrectly assumes all other groups want to do so as well. That’s the only way she can try to justify this discriminatory policy,” said Gill. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than excluding non-identifying allies, minority groups often encourage inclusion and wider acceptance by the public at large. Clearly, DeVos has never heard of Gay-Straight Alliances or interfaith groups.”

“The icing on the cake is that DeVos holds up these exclusionary policies as promoting diversity and pluralism,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “What DeVos is really doing is cloistering off religious students from the existence of atheists, religious minorities, and LGBTQ people, and trying to force all students to remain in their ideological bubbles. That’s not free speech. That’s a multiplication of echo chambers.”

“If student groups want to turn away prospective members because of who they are, they can do so on their own dime. Taxpayers and other students shouldn’t be on the hook for funding this discrimination,” added Fish.

The Department’s final rule also expands the types of educational institutions that can claim religious exemptions from complying with Title IX, which prevents education discrimination on the basis of sex. Recently, the Supreme Court decided in the Bostock decision that for Title VII, which shares language with Title IX, civil rights protections based on sex also extend to cover sexual orientation and gender identity. DeVos’s rule will allow more colleges and universities to opt out of critical civil rights laws and do so without any warning to students.

Image by Gage Skidmore under CC BY-SA 2.0