- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Religious liberty advocates are cheering the Education Department’s plan to longer ban faith-based volunteers, members of religious orders and teachers at religious schools from federal student loan forgiveness programs.

“We support the proposed regulatory changes under Title IV of the Higher Education Act that seek to ensure a level playing field for participation by students of faith and faith-based higher education institutions in federal student aid programs,” Republican Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Joni Ernst of Iowa, James Lankford of Oklahoma and Steve Daines of Montana said Friday in a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The Council for American Private Education also welcomed the changes, saying “religious schools should not be excluded from loan forgiveness or deferment because of the mission of the organization.”

“Many faith-based schools are located in high-need, high-poverty areas and have difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers,” the council said in a regulatory comment.

Other supporters of the proposed change include the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the American Association for Christian Schools and the Christian Legal Society, who argued that current federal student aid rules unfairly discriminate against religious groups.

But the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher’s union, called the proposed policy a violation of the separation of church and state and a drastic change in the use of public funds.

“By disregarding federal law that provides clear guidance on the separation of church and state, these changes would severely compromise the integrity of the Department of Education and the FSA [Federal Student Aid],” Donna M. Harris-Aikens, a senior policy director for the NEA, wrote in a comment posted to the proposed rule change.

Education Department officials said the proposed student loan policy — which was posted for comments last month — is necessary “to ensure that students and faith-based entities are not discriminated against due to their religious beliefs.”

The pending rule change follows the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc. v. Comer. In that 6-2 ruling, the high court said that Missouri officials were wrong to exclude a Christian preschool from state funding for playground safety upgrades based solely on the school’s religious affiliation.

The new policy would affect several federal education payment schemes, including Pell grants, Perkins loans and TEACH grants, which are awarded to students who plan to teach in high-need areas.

The NEA’s Ms. Harris-Aikens wrote in the regulatory note that Perkins loan recipients shouldn’t have access to forgiveness programs “merely because the organizations they volunteer for may provide food to impoverished people.”

However, some faith-based groups noted that the proposed policy still would exclude borrowers of Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL) who are full-time volunteers for “public service organizations,” which engage in activities such as worship, religious instruction or proselytizing.

Critics decried denying access to student loan forgiveness for full-time volunteers with evangelizing groups such as InterVarsity or Cru, an interdenominational ministry formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ.

“Cru’s experience is that we have had many staff wanting to apply for loan forgiveness,” Cru Executive Vice President Steve Sellers and staff attorney Lori Kepner wrote in a regulatory comment. “Yet if they are in a position within our organization that requires religious elements (such as spiritual mentorships and evangelism) as a substantial part of their job, they have been told they are simply not allowed to participate in the program.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian law firm that helped defend Trinity Lutheran, also called for restrictions on activities such as proselytizing and worship to be lifted for FFEL borrowers.

An Education Department spokesperson did not say when a final rule would be posted for comment.

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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