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Education Dept changes practice to follow playground ruling

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks at CPAC on Feb. 23, 2017 (Photo: Screenshot)

Department of Education officials are being praised for announcing they are eliminating an anti-religion bias in their contracting procedures, a move triggered by a Supreme Court decision against such discrimination.

“I commend the Trump administration and the Department of Education for no longer discriminating against religious organizations that can provide the same high-quality educational services to students and teachers as allowed by others,” said Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel.

“The religious freedom of individuals and organizations is protected under federal law and the U.S. Constitution. It is past time to end discrimination against churches and Christian viewpoints,” he said.

The federal agency no longer is enforcing a restriction that had banned school districts from contracting for services with faith-based groups, even if they provided the same services to all children.

It is The Elementary and Secondary Education Act governing elementary, middle and high schools that requires school districts to offer low-income or vulnerable students who attend private schools the same services, such as special education, tutoring or mentoring, that public school students receive, Staver’s group explained.

The law also requires that organizations contracting for such services be independent of “any religious organization.”

However, that specific provision was challenged in the 2017 case decided at the Supreme Court in favor of religious groups. In Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, the justices found that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states cannot discriminate against faith groups.

In the case, the state refused to allow a playground to benefit from a state program for improved play surfaces solely because it was run by a church.

Liberty Counsel filed a brief in the case.

“The Trinity Lutheran decision reaffirmed the long-understood intent of the First Amendment to not restrict the free exercise of religion. Those seeking to provide high-quality educational services to students and teachers should not be discriminated against simply based on the religious character of their organization.,” explained Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education.

She announced the change at a meeting of the Council for American Private Education State Directors.

The agency explained the requirement is unconstitutional “because they categorically exclude religious organizations based solely on their religious identity.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom fought on behalf of the church playground’s operations.

Legal Counsel Kellie Fiedorek said: “Religious organizations should be free to compete to provide goods and services to schools and colleges on a level playing field with everyone else. For that reason, we commend the Trump administration and the Department of Education for recognizing the unconstitutional nature of the existing ban on religious contractors who are providing secular services.”