U.S. Department of Education Reaffirms Commitment to Protecting the Religious Liberty of Students and Religious Organizations

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U.S. Department of Education Reaffirms Commitment to Protecting the Religious Liberty of Students and Religious Organizations

August 7, 2020

WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced today guidance to protect the religious liberty of individuals and institutions participating in Department of Education programs. This action is part of ongoing efforts by the Department to advance religious liberty protections and delivers on President Donald J. Trump’s Executive Order 13798, “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.”

“This Administration will continue to protect the religious liberty and First Amendment rights of every student, teacher and educational institution across the country,” said Secretary DeVos. “Too many misinterpret the ‘separation of church and state’ as an invitation for government to separate people from their faith. In reality, the First Amendment doesn’t exist to protect us from religion. It exists to protect religion from government. Today’s guidance reaffirms our commitment to protecting our first liberty and ensuring that discriminatory restrictions on access to federal grant funding are no longer tolerated.”

This guidance follows recent Supreme Court victories for religious liberty, as Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue and Trinity Lutheran v. Comer curtailed religious discrimination and thus strengthened protections for religious organizations.

The guidance was drafted pursuant to a directive from the Office of Management and Budget requiring each agency to publish policies detailing how they will administer federal grants in compliance with Executive Order 13798, as well as the Attorney General’s Oct. 6, 2017, Memorandum on Religious Liberty, and the Office of Management and Budget’s Jan. 16, 2020, Memorandum. 

Notably, the guidance announces a new process by which individuals and organizations can inform the Department of a burden or potential burden on their religious exercise under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to adequately protect their religious liberties while participating in Department programs.

The new guidance also, consistent with First Amendment principles and Department regulations, does the following:

  • Affirms that religious organizations are equally eligible to participate in ED-administered programs as their secular counterparts
  • Affirms that financial award decisions are made based on merit, not based on an organization’s religion, religious belief, or the lack thereof
  • States that religious organizations receiving federal financial assistance under a Department program must comply with program-specific legislation and regulations, but clarifies that these organizations may continue to carry out their missions and maintain their religious character
    • However, direct federal financial assistance may not be used for religious worship, religious instruction, or proselytization
  • Reminds states that they may not use discriminatory Blaine Amendments to deny faith-based organizations contracts or grants, as this violates Department regulations against discrimination on the basis of an organization’s religious character or affiliation
  • Affirms that students and/or borrowers seeking to participate in Department loan programs and beneficiaries seeking to participate in Department social service programs will not be penalized or singled out for disadvantages on the basis of religion
  • Clarifies the role of the Department’s Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives (CFOI) as a Department office that collaborates with faith and community leaders to maximize participation of religious organizations in Department programs while eliminating barriers in the grantmaking or regulatory process to safeguard religious liberty

Full text of the guidance can be found here.