Sen. Tim Scott: “Freedom of Speech Isn’t Just a Nice Idea”
In recent years, religious organizations at public colleges and universities have had to struggle for the right to exist on campus. The Christian organization InterVarsity Christian Fellowship had to go to court against Wayne State University after having its status as an official student club revoked in 2017.
When federal Judge Robert H. Cleland ruled on this case in 2021, he wrote that other student groups were allowed to restrict their leadership based on sex, gender identity, political partisanship, ideology, creed, ethnicity, GPA or even attractiveness. However, the judge wrote, the “small group of Christians … were denied [student organization] benefits because they require their Christian leaders to be … Christian.”
Judge Cleland ruled in favor of InterVarsity Fellowship.
As many jurists have noted, freedom of association is essential to freedom of speech. An organization must have integrity in the sense of being whole in its beliefs. The Roman Catholic Church would no longer exist if it were forced to hire atheists as priests. The Freedom from Religion Foundation would crumble if forced to accept Roman Catholic priests into its leadership. Discrimination that would be illegal – and immoral – in a business is necessary for a religious, political, or ideological organization to exist and function.
Despite InterVarsity’s victory, many religious organizations – by no means only Christian in nature – have struggled to find acceptance as recognized clubs on campuses where virtually every other kind of organization is readily accepted. To protect religious rights and diversity, the Trump Administration issued a rule in November 2020 called the “Free Inquiry Rule” that protects the rights of religious student groups at public colleges and universities. Religious student organizations could no longer be defunded because they have leadership policies that conflict with campus anti-discrimination rules.
One Muslim leader, Ismail Royer, praised the Trump-era regulation to The Christian Post as an important policy for Muslim student organizations because it allows them “to select their own leaders and define their own mission by their faith’s principles.” He continued: “This right should be reserved for all student organizations, and not usurped by university officials based on their own shifting, unpredictable standards.”
Yet in August 2021, the Biden Administration announced that it was reviewing the Free Inquiry Rule. With the end of a comment period for this proposed rule change in late March, the administration is preparing to rescind existing protections.
Sens. Tim Scott (R-SC) and James Lankford (R-OK), along with Congressman Tim Walberg (R-MI), are responding by introducing a bill to head off a reversal of the Free Inquiry Rule. They introduced the Equal Campus Access Act of 2023 to protect religious student organizations from discrimination on campus.
“Too many public institutions of higher learning are silencing the voices of faith-based student groups, and I am proud to join my colleagues in standing up for the First Amendment," said Sen. Tim Scott. "Freedom of speech isn’t just a nice idea – it’s a core American ideal.”
“On America’s college campuses, freedom of expression is under attack,” said Sen. Lankford. “Colleges need to remain an open arena for debate, discussion – and most importantly – faith.”
“Over the past few years, we have seen a concerning increase of incidents on college campuses where free speech and free association of students has been restricted due to religious beliefs,” Rep. Walberg said. “Students should not have to give up their First Amendment rights of speech, religion, and association to attend a public college …”
Protect The 1st will closely monitor the administration’s rule change, its language and impact, and any legislative proposals offered in response to that change.