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Republican senators introduce Equal Campus Access Act to protect students’ religious freedom

‘affirms the right of religious groups to choose their own leaders’ 

Three Republican senators have proposed legislation in an effort to protect college students’ freedom of religion on campus.

The Higher Education Act of 1965, which sets many of the federal government’s policies on higher education, is currently up for renewal.

With that, U.S. Senators James Lankford (R-Oklahoma), Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) and Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), introduced in April the Equal Campus Access Act of 2019 as an amendment to the HEA.

The proposed amendment states: “None of the funds made available under this Act may be provided to any public institution of higher education that denies to a religious student organization any right, benefit, or privilege that is otherwise afforded to other student organizations at the institution (including full access to the facilities of the institution and official recognition of the organization by the institution) because of the religious beliefs, practices, speech, leadership standards, or standards of conduct of the religious student organization.”

Sen. Lankford said the measure aims to force administrators to respect students’ religious beliefs and their right to choose their group’s leaders.

“More and more we see free speech and free association restricted on college campuses, especially for religious speech and religious groups, but students do not have to forfeit their First Amendment rights of speech, religion, and association to attend a public college. The Equal Campus Access Act affirms the right of religious groups to choose their own leaders without government interference,” he said in a statement.

According to a news release from Lankford’s office, the issue is a pressing one.

“Over the last decade, institutions of higher education in 31 states have had incidents where religious student organizations lost access to rights, benefits, and privileges because of their faith-based policies,” it stated. “Despite a clear mandate from the Supreme Court to allow diverse viewpoints in the campus setting, colleges and universities continue to stifle religious perspectives by prohibiting religious groups from selecting leaders based on whether they support the organization’s beliefs.”

The senators’ offices declined to comment further on the effort to The College Fix.

Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told The College Fix in a phone interview that while the bill is a good first step they would like to see expanded protections.

“FIRE is happy to see the Senate is considering adding protections for student organizations,” but the group would like to see lawmakers’ efforts “expanded to protect all belief or advocacy-based organizations,” Cohn said.

The senators’ proposal, meanwhile, has been referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

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About the Author
Zachary Petrizzo -- George Mason University