The Unintended Consequences of the Equal Access Act

August 29, 2018

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The Unintended Consequences of the Equal Access Act

The Equal Access Act of 1984 forbids any secondary school that receives federal funds from denying resources to a student-led organization “on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.” The bill was passed by a U.S. Congress comprised of a large group of allies of the newly ascendant Moral Majority, and its original intention was championed by conservatives concerned about religious freedom in public schools. However, the bill evolved from something focused on creating space for Christian clubs in high schools to more broadly allow for “non-curriculum”-related clubs (including atheist groups). Ironically, today equal access challenges are likely to emerge when conservative Christians attempt to stop students from creating Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs). At the same time, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has continually declined to confirm whether the Department of Education will protect LGBTQ students from discrimination. Under DeVos the department’s workforce has shrunk, a loss of staff capacity that could hurt its ability to conduct civil rights investigations and enforcement–all at a time when the Office for Civil Rights has seen discrimination complaints reach record levels. Higher education also faces a reckoning in regards to extra-curricular student groups, recently illustrated in the closing of a national sorority’s chapter at Harvard University in response to the school’s adoption of penalties for members of single-gender clubs (a policy originally created to address discrimination against women by historically male-only clubs).

This week the Berkley Forum asks: How has interpretation and enforcement of the Equal Access Act evolved since its passing in 1984? How should public school administrations balance the needs of groups such as GSAs with religious clubs that have conflicting views? Will changes in the Department of Education affect the enforcement of the Equal Access Act and other anti-discrimination legislation? What are some best practices for secondary and higher education institutions looking to develop inclusive policies regarding student groups?

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