Rules Are for Schmucks: The DeVos Religious College Ploy

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (photo by Gage Skidmore)

Brace yourself for the next explosion designed to shatter what little remains of the wall of separation between church and state. This time the target will be America’s religious colleges.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos published a short notice last month that her department was preparing to “amend or rescind” regulations that “restrict participation by religious entities in the Department’s grant programs by including requirements specific to such entities.”

What kind of regulations? Well, for example, all those nasty, anti-biblical civil rights rules. Bob Jones University, years ago, lost its tax-exempt status because of its biblical ban on interracial dating. Outrageous affronts to religious freedom like that will be a thing of the past once the DeVos bulldozer finishes its work. Even if the religious right to discriminate on race is restricted, the right to discriminate on gender or sexual orientation will almost certainly be restored.

Here’s another example. Current regulations prohibit work-study financial aid for work that involves “the construction, operation or maintenance of any part of a facility used or to be used for religious worship or sectarian instruction.” In other words, colleges cannot use government-provided work-study funds to pay students to clean and maintain churches, on-campus or off.  Once this rule disappears, as seems likely, taxpayers can expect to start paying for the upkeep of every church within transport range of a religious college.

Then there’s the popular grant program called Gear Up, which funds tutors, mentors, and other outreach efforts for at-risk youths. Regulations now prohibit state education departments from using these funds for institutions that are “pervasively sectarian,” to shield the at-risk youths from the proselytizing that would surely follow. Once that rule disappears, your tax dollars will start compensating religious college students for their hard work in preaching the gospel and winning converts.

Government college grant programs in general require that participation in religious services at the college be “voluntary.” That rule will be gone in a heartbeat. Your tax dollars will be diverted to schools that promise to kick out anyone who doesn’t subject themselves to daily brainwashing.

Most students whose last name isn’t “Trump” graduate with a heavy load of tuition debt.  Some are able to work off part of that debt through service to their communities. That service, though, needs to be strictly secular. Preaching doesn’t count. Once DeVos trashes that rule, expect to start paying the salary of your local assistant minister.

Secretary DeVos appears to be in somewhat of a competition with Republican members of Congress to see who can shovel more government money into religion more quickly. The push on Capitol Hill is to reauthorize the Higher Education Act with a major overhaul called the “Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform Act,” or the “PROSPER Act.” PROSPER, among other things, would repeal anti-discrimination rules to permit campus organizations to discriminate based on race, religion, or sexual orientation, if God tells them to do so. There may be a limit to how far DeVos can go by amending a regulation, but there is virtually no limit to how far Congress can go.

Both the religious provisions in the PROSPER Act and the DeVos regulatory proposals flow directly from last year’s disastrous Trinity Lutheran Supreme Court decision. The court held that not only may government directly fund churches, but that it must do so, if it funds anyone at all. At the time, I disagreed with many legal observers and described the case as an unmitigated disaster. This latest salvo from DeVos & Co. bears that prediction out.

As the debate unfolds, keep one important fact in mind: there is nothing illegal or wrong about college students working to clean and maintain churches, or loading up the mentoring of children with religion, or doing religiously oriented community service to help pay off their debts, or being required to attend religious services on campus. It’s a diverse world out there, which is fine. What’s wrong is the government using my money (and yours) to deliberately promote particular sets of views about the supernatural, especially when those views are so utterly intolerant of people like me (and you) who do not share them. That is exactly what DeVos and the Republicans in Congress are bent on achieving.

There are some religious colleges, like Hillsdale College, that have taken a principled stand and said: “If the government is going to attach strings to its money, then we don’t want it. We’ll get by on our own.” I don’t agree with their overall point of view, but I do respect them for being forthright. Hillsdale, in fact, has received heavy contributions from the DeVos family for years. Now, with the new DeVos regulations, they’ll be able to have their cake and eat it too. That should save the secretary a lot of money.