U.S. Department of Education Finds ESEA Restriction on Religious Organizations Unconstitutional, Will No Longer Enforce

News Release, US Department of Education

WASHINGTON—U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced today at the Council for American Private Education (CAPE) State Directors Annual Meeting that the Department will no longer enforce a restriction barring religious organizations from serving as contract providers of equitable services solely due to their religious affiliation.

The U.S. Department of Education, in consultation with the U.S. Department of Justice, determined the statutory provisions in Section 1117(d)(2)(B) and 8501(d)(2)(B) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that require an equitable services provider to “be independent of … any religious organization” are unconstitutional because they categorically exclude religious organizations based solely on their religious identity.

These provisions run counter to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 137 S. Ct. 2012 (2017) that, under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, otherwise eligible recipients cannot be disqualified from a public benefit solely because of their religious character.

Given this decision, the Department will no longer enforce these provisions that previously restricted school districts from contracting with religious organizations to provide equitable services on the same basis as any other organization.

“The Trinity Lutheran decision reaffirmed the long-understood intent of the First Amendment to not restrict the free exercise of religion,” said Secretary DeVos. “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.”

The Department will continue to enforce all other applicable provisions of federal law. In particular, under ESEA Sections 1117(a)(2) and 8501(a)(2), school districts must continue to ensure that any contractor is independent of the private school for which it is providing services and that the educational services and other benefits being provided by the contractor are “secular, neutral and non-ideological.”

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