University Discrimination Against Religious Student Groups
Hundreds of public universities have denied religious student organizations the right to choose their religious leaders over the decades.
Religious student organizations are a haven for students. They create belonging, community, and safety. They foster expressions of religious life. They add beauty and diversity to campus life. They contribute to spiritual and emotional health for large numbers of students. They do this because they authentically reflect the faith traditions they represent.
Unfortunately, too many campuses interfere with how religious student groups select their leaders. Administrators prohibit every religious group from requiring their leaders to be members of the group’s religion. Muslim groups can’t require their leaders to be Muslim. Sikh groups cannot require their leaders to be Sikh. Jewish groups can’t require their leaders to be Jewish. It doesn’t make sense.
Universities allow fraternities to require their leaders to be men. Women’s a cappella groups can require their leaders to be women. Advocacy groups can select leaders who are passionate about their issues. A Latinx scholarship society can require its leaders to be Latinx. But if a Buddhist student group wants to require its leaders to be Buddhist, it loses access to meeting rooms, activity fairs, and other opportunities to inform students of its existence. It loses the ability to find new members. It loses the ability to exist on campus.
The current regulation helps both university administrators and religious student groups avoid costly lawsuits. It gives administrators a clear understanding of their duty to respect religious student groups. Changing the regulation muddies the current clarity and makes lawsuits inevitable.
Most students do not know their constitutional rights or how to stand up for them. Many groups end up never getting registered, end up disbanding, or just try to function without any ability to formally preserve their religious identity and beliefs. Even if they win a lawsuit against the university, the process is disruptive to their college experience. And the lengthy legal process can rob them of accessible faith communities during their college years.
Department of Education Backtracks
Religious student groups thought a solution was at hand. In 2020, the Department of Education issued a regulation to protect religious student organizations. The regulation ensures that religious student organizations on public college campuses would have the same access as other student organizations on their campus.
Unfortunately, on February 22, 2023, the Department of Education issued new proposed regulations rescinding this important protection for religious student organizations.
The current rule protects the many diverse religious student organizations all over the country, who wish to retain their distinctive religious identities by having standards related to their religious practices and leadership, in the same way that non-religious clubs are able to retain their unique identities by forming around shared beliefs and goals. The diverse voices and stories of students and alumni from religious organizations matter a great deal. The Department of Education needs to hear your voice and your story as it considers whether to keep this important protection for students of all faiths.
Why Campus Religious Groups Matter
Universities are some of the most religiously diverse places across the country, and religious faith and practice plays a significant role in the lives of many students. To best serve the spiritual needs of students, religious student groups need to be able to retain their unique religious identities. Authentic religious communities offer holistic care for students, help alleviate the high-pressure environment of the academy, and support their emotional and mental health — a pressing need for many college students, particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic. The presence of vibrant and diverse religious communities, through thriving religious student organizations, also promotes respect for different viewpoints and enhances the diversity of any college campus.
Religious student organizations serve their campus communities. For example, students from a student organization called Cru at George Mason University organize a “Love Week” each year, where they tackle important topics like stopping sex trafficking and caring for refugees. while mobilizing fellow students to make a difference and meet practical needs in the global community at Indiana University, religious student groups partnered with the Secular Alliance student group to co-sponsor an annual event to promote respectful dialogue about important questions of life. A campus ministry in California co-sponsored a “Coming Out Day” to support LGBQTI+ students. And at a law school in San Diego, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant student organizations joined together to host a “Thank You Staff Thanksgiving Breakfast” and presented personal thank-you notes to the law school staff.
You can make a difference.
Join thousands of people who are helping religious student organizations around the country reflect their religious faith with integrity.
*The deadline for comments is March 24, 2023.