Opinion: New education bill a blow to inclusion at college

 In this Jan. 21, 2018, photo, lights shine inside the U.S. Capitol Building as night falls in Washington. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

In this Jan. 21, 2018, photo, lights shine inside the U.S. Capitol Building as night falls in Washington. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

Recently, a new bill passed through the education committee of the United States Congress that could potentially have a strong impact on how certain campuses and student groups operate. The bill, which made it through the committee on a party-line vote, corrects what Republicans regard as hostility toward conservative convictions on college campuses. While some portions of the bill aren’t terribly controversial (like a provision to have colleges declare their speech policies so changes can’t be made for specific speakers), other stipulations appear to greenlight certain discriminatory practices against groups of students.

One aspect of the bill is that religious colleges will be able to ban openly same-sex relationships without facing repercussions from the federal government. Under the act, the federal government would not be able to take action against colleges for policies related to their religious mission or affiliation. Under current law, the government could potentially revoke a religious university’s tax-exempt status or withhold federal student loans if a university were discriminating against its students for same-sex relationships. Many religious colleges have worried about losing their accreditation in recent years, especially at universities where openly gay dating and marriage are forbidden.

This provision essentially allows universities to continue to treat their students like second-class citizens as long as they can justify it with some interpretation of their religious beliefs. It’s a ridiculous notion not only because of how religious universities already treat some students, but also because of how broadly the law could be applied. If I started a college based on religious beliefs that included preventing heterosexual behavior or requiring students to walk around on their hands and I could prove my beliefs were legitimate, then I would still get my tax-exempt status based on the new law.

Of course that sounds fairly ridiculous, but no more ridiculous then preventing homosexual relationships because the college’s particular brand of religion regards homosexuality as a sin. If a university wants the benefits that come with being accredited and tax-exempt, they should not be able to treat their students or faculty with such disdain. Freedom of religion gives you the freedom to practice your beliefs, not to force them onto other people. Locking this misguided notion that religious freedom gives you the pleasure to do as you please into federal law would be a shameful mistake.

Besides trying to keep homosexuals in the closet, Republicans are also trying to allow religious student groups to prevent people who are a part of different faiths from becoming members. This part of the bill addresses the many public universities that require religious student groups that want school funds to allow membership for any student and grant them the same ability to apply for leadership provisions. Public universities with these requirements would no longer be eligible for federal aid under this bill.

Like the first provision, this opens the door for exclusionary practices justified through religious beliefs. For example, a Christian group at a California college in 2010 blocked gay students from leadership roles or even being allowed to vote. The college in question withheld recognition of the group, an action upheld by the Supreme Court. Under the new bill the college may not be able to do anything. Once again, Republicans are trying to derail the efforts of organizations to curtail discrimination.

There isn’t a rampant problem with people from different faiths hijacking other religious groups. I’m fairly certain a bunch of atheists aren’t going to all get together and take control of some religious group by flooding their membership, and other religious organizations aren’t targeting each other either. And even if that extreme did occur, I am sure a university would take steps to remedy the situation. Therefore, the only thing this provision does is to allow student groups to kick out those who disagree with them, even if they are legitimately interested in understanding those with different religious beliefs. For all their preaching of free speech and listening to other viewpoints, Republicans would encourage close-mindedness for the sake of religious freedom.

Of course, in a 590-page bill there are many other provisions and they are probably not all terrible, although who can say for sure? Nevertheless, one bad apple ruins the bunch and there are at least two apples that are rampant with worms and rot in this bill. Lawmakers must not give a free pass to universities that trample on a student’s right to be with who they love while at the same time punishing colleges that try to foster inclusion and an open discussion.


Jacob Kowalski is opinion editor for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at jacob.kowalski@uconn.edu.