Senators Back Education Department’s Proposal to Remove Restrictions on Faith-Based Schools

Five U.S. senators are expressing their support of the Education Department’s proposal to change rules to allow faith-based schools to equally benefit from federal student loan forgiveness programs.

“Under the current regulatory regime, students and faith-based institutions face a complicated web of rules that are at best an open question and at worst unconstitutional discrimination,” Republican Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Tim Scott of South Carolina, James Lankford of Oklahoma, and Steve Daines of Montana wrote in a Jan. 10 letter (pdf) to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Provisions in the current rule, according to the senators, “unacceptably single out members of a faith group beyond what is necessary and violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”

The Education Department has proposed in December 2019 a series of changes to rules regarding the eligibility of faith-based institutions for programs authorized under Title IV of the Higher Education Act.

The proposed changes, as the senators noted, would ensure faith-based volunteers, members of religious orders, and teachers at religious schools are not denied access to the federal student loan forgiveness programs. In addition, the Department would eliminate inconsistent limitations to allow private faith-based schools that provide post-secondary education for low-income students to receive federal grants known as GEAR UP, and remove language that “explicitly discriminates against students for their religious beliefs.”

“We commend the administration for taking steps to ensure clarity and religious liberty protections for students and faith-based higher education institutions,” the senators continued. “Importantly, Title IV programs remain available to all eligible students and entities regardless of their religious status or beliefs.”

The Department’s proposed rule changes are consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer in 2017. Trinity Lutheran Church, which operates a licensed preschool in Missouri, was denied by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources when it tried to apply for a playground equipment grant, only because of its religious identity. Trinity sued and argued that the denial of its application violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of religion and speech.

The Supreme Court, with a 7-2 conservative majority, ruled in favor of Trinity, stating that the exclusion of churches or any other faith-based organizations from an “otherwise neutral and secular aid program” is a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion.