According to the Florida Department of Education, its financial punishment of college students who choose a school with a “religious purpose” does not even implicate the First Amendment. Moreover, contends the Department, the First Amendment has nothing to say about its segregation of schools into disfavored “too religious” and favored “not too religious” categories.
Those remarkable arguments lie behind Department officials’ recent request that a federal district court throw out a civil rights lawsuit filed against them by Florida Christian College and certain of its students. Represented by Alliance Defense Fund attorneys, FCC and the students commenced litigation in March, asserting that their exclusion from the Florida Resident Access Grant (FRAG) program violated their First Amendment rights. It is well-settled that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause prohibits government from penalizing conduct based on its religious purpose or motivation. It is similarly clear that government officials may not “pick and choose” among religious organizations, favoring some and disfavoring others based on an assessment of their relative “religiosity.”
Despite settled law, Department officials moved to dismiss the case on June 1, contending that the First Amendment simply does not prohibit the sort of religious discrimination in which they have engaged. ADF will continue defending the rights of FCC and its students, asking the court to reject the Department’s request to throw the case out. And we can all hope that the Florida Department of Education—and the courts—will see the importance of ending the sort of unjust religious discrimination on display in this case.