Tuesday, March 12, 2019

DOE Will Not Enforce Ban On Religious Organizations As Contractors For "Equitable Services" Under Federal Grants

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires local educational agencies to include private schools in their federally funded programs to provide supplemental educational services to provide equitable, high-quality education for students from low-income families. School districts may contract with outside providers for various educational services, however under ESSA, the provider must be independent of any religious organization.  In a press release yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education announced that this restriction would no longer be enforced, saying in part:
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.
The Department will, however, continue to enforce the statutory requirement that the outside services being provided are "secular, neutral and non-ideological."