Religious student groups on many college and university campuses will lose key federal protections for their ability to organize on campus and set their own standards for leaders if the Biden administration’s proposed rule change is finalized, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has said.

The existing rules are “commonsense protection for faith-based student organizations that have faced discrimination on many public college campuses for nearly four decades,” the general counsel’s office of the U.S. bishops’ conference said in March 23 comments submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.

“By protecting students of all faiths, the existing regulations ensure that students of all religious faiths will be welcome on public college campuses, thereby enhancing authentic religious diversity on those campuses,” the bishops’ letter said. To rescind the rules would tell religious student groups “that they are not welcome on public campuses.”

The Biden administration seeks to rescind the “equal campus access” provisions of the Trump administration’s 2020 Religious Liberty and Free Inquiry Rule.

The 2020 rule has two sets of provisions: one for public institutions that directly receive grants and one that governs states and subgrantees that are public institutions. The rule bars denying religious groups at these public institutions “any right, benefit, or privilege” that other student groups receive, including facility access, student group funding, and official institutional recognition, because of “the religious student organization’s beliefs, practices, policies, speech, membership standards, or leadership standards, which are informed by sincerely held religious beliefs.”

“Thriving religious student organizations benefit not just those who choose to participate in their activities but their campus communities as a whole,” the bishops said in support of the current rule. “Religious student organizations offer spiritual nourishment, emotional encouragement, and friendship to all at a time when university communities are still recovering from the physical, emotional, and spiritual toll that the pandemic wrought.”

COVID-19 restrictions on in-person meetings made students struggle to keep their organizations going, and the current rules are “particularly critical” to their efforts to rebuild, the bishops said. Religious involvement has a relationship with improved ability to cope with stress, less depression, suicide, anxiety, and substance abuse, the letter said.

The Biden administration’s Feb. 21 proposal to rescind the rule said it is “not necessary to protect the First Amendment right to free speech and free exercise of religion.” It is “unduly burdensome” for the Department of Education to investigate alleged violations. The rule has “created confusion” among higher education institutions, some of which say the rule would require them to “allow religious student groups to discriminate against vulnerable and marginalized students.” This requirement, according to the rule proposal, would “go beyond what the First Amendment mandates.”

The bishops’ Office of Legal Counsel said the Biden administration’s proposal ignores concerns that the enforcement of “neutral, generally applicable” nondiscrimination law and policy do not always yield a “just result” and might not survive Supreme Court scrutiny.

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Litigation is not an adequate solution for student groups, many of which lack funds for legal representation. Many student members will graduate by the time their rights are vindicated, and there will be a “chilling effect” given “the absence of clear, regulatory protections.”

Preserving the current rule means “students of all faiths will remain free to establish and maintain communities defined by shared religious commitments on their public college campuses,” the bishops’ letter said.

A March 2023 briefing from the Christian Legal Society lists dozens of incidents in which federally funded colleges or universities threatened to exclude student religious groups because of their rules that leaders must agree with their beliefs.

In one significant 2018 incident, almost 40 recognized student groups at the University of Iowa, including InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, were de-registered due to their religious leadership standards. While InterVarsity allows all students to participate as members, it requires leaders to embrace its Christian mission. Other groups expelled from campus for similar reasons included the Latter-day Saint Student Association, the Sikh Awareness Club, and the Chinese Student Christian Fellowship.

In 2019, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose ruled that the University of Iowa’s anti-discrimination policy was unevenly applied against another Christian club, Business Leaders in Christ, which the university de-recognized in 2017. In March 2021, a federal appeals court ruled that the University of Iowa officials who wrongly de-recognized the Christian student group can be held personally liable for their unconstitutional actions.

The secularist group Americans United for Separation of Church and State is among the groups backing the Biden administration’s proposed rule change. The group’s Feb. 21 statement said the existing rule “forced universities to fund discrimination by religious student groups.”

The USCCB’s Office of Government Relations, writing in a March 24 advocacy update, said that permanent statutory protections are needed. To this end, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty chairman, has co-signed a March 13 letter to several members of Congress backing the language in the proposed Equal Campus Access Act of 2023.

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The letter, co-signed by many Catholic leaders, other Christian leaders, and several Jewish leaders, said the proposed legislation will “provide critical protection for faith-based student organizations of all religious traditions.”

The letter affirmed “the freedom of all students to meet on their public college campuses based upon their shared religious beliefs” and their ability “to choose leaders who affirmatively support the distinctive religious messages and missions of their various groups.”

Joining Cardinal Dolan were Catholic co-signers including leaders of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, the Catholic Medical Association, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, and the Michigan Catholic Conference.