The Higher Education Opportunity Act in the United States currently requires accreditation bodies to “respect the stated mission” of religious colleges and universities in their accreditation standards. In other words, accreditors aren’t supposed to use accreditation standards as a pretext for restricting the free speech and religious liberty rights of religious institutions to develop curricular standards consistent with their missions. As part of a free and diverse society, religious educational institutions are supposed to have the freedom to adopt curricula consistent with their fundamental beliefs.
But a new proposal could gut current protections in the name of “science,” raising a serious threat to open debate over scientific issues and their implications.
Opening Pandora’s Box
In its Blueprint for Positive Change 2020, the Human Rights Campaign proposes that the U.S. Department of Education in the next presidential administration adopt new regulations to “Ensure Nondiscrimination Policies and Science Based Curricula Are Not Undermined by Religious Exemptions to Accreditation Standards.” The document explains:
Language regarding accreditation of religious institutions of higher education in the Higher Education Opportunity Act could be interpreted to require accrediting bodies to accredit religious institutions that discriminate or that do not meet science based curricula standards. The Department of Education should issue a regulation clarifying that this provision, which requires accreditation agencies to “respect the stated mission” of religious institutions, does not require the accreditation of religious institutions that do not meet neutral accreditation standards including nondiscrimination policies and scientific curriculum requirements. (emphasis added)
If enacted, this proposal would open Pandora’s Box for new restrictions on free speech and academic freedom in the area of science. Many scientific claims have worldview implications, including scientific claims arising in the fields of cosmology, origin of life research, evolution, sexuality, medicine, human cloning, and neuroscience. As a result, science research can give rise to a host of disputed questions. Some of these questions are ethical—for example, is it moral to use fetal tissue from aborted human babies should in medical research? Other questions are factual: How much change can unguided natural selection actually produce? Are proposed materialistic explanations for the origin of the first life scientifically realistic?
What About Dissenting Views?
It’s not hard to envision accreditors trying to impose dogmatic curriculum standards that would squelch the coverage of dissenting scientific views. Under current law, if a religious university as part of its mission decides to include dissenting scientific views about Darwinian evolution in its science curriculum, it has an additional layer of protection from punitive accreditors. If this new proposal goes into effect, that layer of protection will be eroded.
Needless to say, this proposal is not grounded in science, which is supposed to prize open debate and scrutiny, not censorship. The proposal also represents a repudiation of the principles of a free society. A free society prizes diversity of thought and seeks to achieve consensus by persuasion, not coercion.
Finally, the proposal exhibits insecurity rather than confidence. Confessional religious institutions are a small fraction of the total colleges and universities in the United States. But apparently protecting their diversity of thought is too dangerous to permit. It’s almost as if those making the proposal fear that they can’t prevail in debates over science issues if even a handful of institutions are allowed to air dissenting views. Are their own arguments that weak?