Religious Discrimination Laws Protecting Students on College Campuses

Fighting For Important Causes In State And Federal Courts

Religious rights on college campuses is a forgotten prong of today’s social justice issues. Laudable focus on gender inclusivity, free speech, racial diversity, and other hot-button issues has moved the needle in the right direction for many Americans while the right to practice one’s religion has floundered. Given how important religion is to many students and members of our society, it is imperative that we continue learning about others’ beliefs and protect their right to practice those beliefs. Constitutional rights violations attorney Andrew Shubin explores freedom of religious expression in higher education, which is crucial to achieving our goal of a more equitable society.

What Does the First Amendment Say About Religion in Schools?

The first amendment of the US Constitution provides in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” 42 USC § 1983 allows individuals to sue when someone acting under the color of law deprives them of rights protected by the US Constitution. In other words, § 1983 adds teeth to the Constitution by creating a pathway for individuals to enforce their rights through lawsuits. Combined, the first amendment and § 1983 provide victims of religious discrimination a route to have their rights vindicated in court.

Proving Religious Discrimination by a College, University, or Other Educational Institution

Courts have determined that the first step of analyzing a free exercise claim is to determine whether to apply a strict scrutiny or rational basis review.

Rational Basis Review

A rational basis review is applied when the rule in question is neutral and applies generally, even if the law has some incidental burdensome effects on a particular practice. In contrast, a strict scrutiny test is applied if a rule that burdens a religious practice or belief is deemed not neutral or generally applicable. For example, a system whereby school officials recognize students’ rights in an ad hoc, uneven manner will likely fall under the strict scrutiny standard. Under a rational basis test, the statute or ordinance concerning free exercise must have a legitimate state interest, and there must be a rational connection between the rule’s means and goals.

Strict Scrutiny Test

Under the strict scrutiny test, courts ask whether the burden on religious conduct is narrowly tailored to advance a compelling government interest. Which standard of review—strict scrutiny or rational basis—is often a contentious issue in freedom of exercise litigation since a plaintiff’s success often hinges on which standard is applied.

Religion and the Free Exercise Clause

Schools often argue that the language of their rules restricting free exercise are neutral on the face. However, the Supreme Court has noted that mere facial neutrality is not enough. Justice Scalia wrote in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, “Official action that targets religious conduct for distinctive treatment cannot be shielded by mere compliance with the requirement of facial neutrality. The Free Exercise Clause protects against governmental hostility which is masked, as well as overt.” 508 U.S. 520 (1993). This is important since many instances of present-day discrimination—especially in large public universities—happen when rules “protecting” equality and fairness are applied unequally and unfairly. Fed up with empty promises, victims of religious discrimination often put their heads down, trying to find a way through the situation. But they must remember that without their voices, the Constitutional right to exercise one’s religion freely will continue to be trampled.

Most large universities and institutions have genuinely good intentions. Unfortunately, they are often unsuccessful at policing themselves. They are simply too large and complex to carefully observe each student’s rights. A simple google search reveals countless instances of public universities falling short on protecting their most valuable and least powerful stakeholders. Rapid progress is being made in gender discrimination in schools and fighting for gender equality thanks to students courageous enough to bring their issues to light. But while advances are made in many corners of social justice, other areas are suffering. Today’s intense political climate surrounding religion has threatened our friends and colleagues’ constitutionally protected right to practice their beliefs unburdened.

Large public universities, police, and legislatures are ill-equipped to protect against infractions of the right to exercise religion freely. Indeed, this is why § 1983 was put in place, providing individuals a pathway to fight for their rights. If progress is to be made in free exercise, more individuals must recognize when their rights are infringed on and seek help in reinstating those rights.

Call a Religious Discrimination Lawyer Today If Your Rights Were Violated

Research shows that beyond ignorance that their rights were violated, the top five reasons why individuals do not engage a lawyer all concern uncertainty about costs and complications. It is important to underscore that reaching out to determine whether you need legal help is nearly always free. Most firms, ours included, are happy to hear your story. If we think your right to exercise your beliefs freely might have been violated, we will work with you to achieve fairness. Any reputable firm—again, ours included—will be transparent about potential costs and will work with you to mitigate any financial or reputational concerns. The human rights violations lawyers at Shubin Law are dedicated to a social mission and if a client’s case fits within that mission, we find a way to support it or do our best to find representation outside our firm that will. Call today for a free consultation at (814) 826-3586.


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