Federal Appeals Court Derails Biden Administration Efforts to Restrict Religious Student Groups

October 13, 2023

Ismail Royer, Director of RFI’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team, recently signed on to a multi-faith letter to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in defense of religious student groups on public university campuses. 

Dated October 11, 2023, the letter highlights a recent federal appeals court decision “holding that a religious student group has a First Amendment right to require that its leaders affirm the group’s religious beliefs and religious standards of conduct.” 

The Ninth Circuit’s 9-2 holding last month calls into serious question a Biden administration proposal that would eliminate the “free inquiry rule” promulgated during the Trump administration. The rule forbids public universities from “delisting” faith-based student groups that make faithful adherence to their religious tenets a condition of leadership in the group. 

As the letter states, the appellate decision “makes clear that the Department’s proposal to rescind the regulations that protect religious student groups on public university and college campuses, 34 CFR § 75.500(d) and § 76.500(d), is contrary to established federal law.” 

In other words, the letter argues, this important decision should stay the administration’s hand on this matter, and leave key regulatory protections in place for religious student groups that want their leaders to reflect the core convictions of the faith that led to their founding and continues to inspire their organizational activities. 

The letter further affirms: “Respect for religious student groups’ right to choose their leaders according to their religious beliefs is essential to a free and truly pluralistic society…[and] the Department [of Education] must ensure that our public institutions of higher education teach and model respect for diverse religious beliefs and practices.”

In March, RFI submitted a formal comment to the Department of Education opposing the agency’s move to rescind the free inquiry rule.

Read the full letter here.