Photo by Jessica Wade
Education major Laura Espinosa counter-protests the Westboro Baptist Church at MBLGTACC 2018. The PROSPER Act would threaten LGBTQ+ students.
Jessica Wade

With an already uncertain financial future at the state level, graduate and professional students around the country may soon face financial woes on a federal level.

In early December, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce unveiled the PROSPER Act (Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity through Education Reform). A lengthy name for a lengthy bill, the PROSPER proposal has over 500 pages of reforms and policies.

Among the changes proposed is the roll back of eligibility for earning Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). The bill also caps how much a student can borrow for graduate or professional school at $28,500 per year, a move that would undermine the current direct loan system where a student can borrow as much as it costs to go to graduate or professional school.

Another concerning provision buried in the PROSPER Act is labeled as “religious freedom” but seems to exist more as a means to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The section states:

“None of the funds made available under this Act may be provided to any public institution of higher education that denies to a religious student organization any right, benefit, or privilege that is generally afforded to other student organizations at the institution (including full access to the facilities of the institution and official recognition of the organization by the institution) because of the religious beliefs, practices, speech, membership standards, or standards of conduct of the religious student organization.”

The wording is good in theory, students should feel comfortable expressing and representing their beliefs on college campuses. However, the language is referring to incidents where religious student organizations accepted campus funding but then violated the nondiscrimination policies implemented by the college.

Such an example recently occurred at the University of Iowa, where a group called Business Leaders in Christ was affiliated by the university after refusing to let a gay student serve as its vice president.

This section, if kept, would open a very unpredictable can of worms. Besides members of the LGBTQ+ community, an organization could also discriminate against women, students of other religions and any student whose beliefs don’t entirely align with the organization.

The language does not specify what religious policies would be protected. Does that mean every religious belief in the world, no matter how radical, would be guaranteed “full access to the facilities of the institution and official recognition of the organization by the institution”?

Looking past the incredibly questionable language policy writers wove into the act, the PROSPER Act isn’t entirely a train wreck. There’s a clause that would guarantee students with disabilities access to the same education materials as their classmates. It’s a shame the rest of the bill couldn’t be as inclusive.

Religious freedom is one of the greatest rights granted to U.S. citizens, but that freedom does not grant the right to use religion to discriminate against and impose those beliefs on others.