In its latest threat to the religious liberty and independence of Catholic colleges and universities, the Obama administration has issued new regulations that open the door to possible state intrusion into curriculum, student policies and hiring decisions.
by Patrick Reilly
The regulations issued Friday effectively force many states to increase oversight of postsecondary education through state chartering or licensing, which is a necessary condition for colleges to participate in federal student aid programs.
Most Catholic colleges accept low-cost federal student loans and grants. If forced to forego federal aid, these colleges would be at a disadvantage in recruiting students.
The door is opened for state politicians and bureaucrats who would impose their social agendas on private and religious colleges.
Already the Obama administration has seized direct ownership of student loans, and now a college’s eligibility for student loans is subject to the political whims of its state legislators and regulators. Many states have demonstrated callous disregard for the religious identity of Catholic colleges, from mandating contraceptive coverage in student and employee health plans to requiring employee benefits for same-sex couples.
Although the Higher Education Act has long required state authorization for a college to participate in federal aid programs, many states do not aggressively monitor colleges and their consent was assumed unless otherwise reported to the U.S. Education Department. The new regulations require state approval of colleges “by name” and a state process “to review and appropriately act on” complaints about any approved institution.
When issuing the regulations Friday, the Education Department acknowledged that it had received complaints from college leaders that “a State’s role may extend into defining, for example, curriculum, teaching methods, subject matter content, faculty qualifications, and learning outcomes.” Others feared that states might “impose homogeneity upon institutions that would compromise their unique missions.”
In response, federal officials agreed that the new regulations do “not limit a State’s oversight of institutions.”
Last year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled that Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic institution in North Carolina, must cover birth control in its employee health insurance plan despite the college’s religious objections. An appeal to the EEOC is under review.
Catholic colleges and students may also not be protected from similar mandates for abortion and contraceptive insurance coverage under the recently enacted Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—i.e., President Obama’s health care overhaul.
After the EEOC ruling against Belmont Abbey College, The Cardinal Newman Society launched its project to defend the religious liberty of Catholic colleges through its division, The Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education. The Center published three papers—from experts in law, health insurance and ethics—to help Catholic colleges defend against government mandates for employee health benefits that violate Catholic morality.
Later this month, the Center will release a new legal analysis prepared by a prominent legal interest organization on steps Catholic colleges must take to defend themselves against increasing threats to their Catholic identity.
Patrick Reilly is the president of the Cardinal Newman Society.