Victory for Religious Practice at Job Corps Site – Student Bible Study Allowed

By 

Geoffrey Surtees

|
August 2

5 min read

Religious Liberty

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The Job Corps, a program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, is the largest free residential education and vocational training program for disadvantaged young adults in the nation. The Job Corps provides basic education, training in vocational skills, health care and education, counseling, and residential support. Students who successfully go through a Job Corps program can obtain the necessary skills to enter a wide number of fields, from financial services to the culinary arts, to a certified nurse assistant.

The Job Corps is also a residential program where students live on-site. There are currently over 110 such centers throughout the country and more than 60,000 new students enroll each year.

We were recently contacted by a counselor and student who wished to start a Bible study during non-school hours at a Job Corps site. Despite their repeated requests to obtain permission, they were never able to secure a firm answer. They were instead given a run-around, being given excuse after excuse as to why a final decision could not be made.

Tired of the delay tactics, the counselor and student contacted the ACLJ for assistance.

We sent a letter to the director of the local Job Corps center explaining that the Bible study should be approved forthwith for two reasons: (1) Job Corps policies specifically allow for it, and (2) the First Amendment requires it.

Indeed, provisions of the Office of Job Corps Policy and Requirements Handbook could not be plainer: Because of the “high value” Job Corps places “on the right of students in Job Corps to exercise their religious freedom,” “Job Corps centers are required to allow students to engage in religious activities on center.” Handbook, 6.8, R4.

Job Corp centers (1) “must permit students to express their views related to religion and to exercise their right to religious freedom” and (2) “permit residents to engage in voluntary religious activities, including holding religious services, on center.” R4(b)(1).

In addition, Job Corps centers must

develop, and inform students about, procedures for scheduling (and monitoring, where appropriate) religious activities to ensure equitable allocation of space and other center resources. In preparing the calendar of recreational events and activities . . . centers must include those on-center religious services that are open to all students and/or supervised by Job Corps staff.

Id. at R4(b)(2).

Our letter further pointed out that even if Job Corps policies were silent on the issue, the First Amendment mandates that the request to hold a Bible study on campus be approved. The government, or any agency thereof, may not discriminate against private religious speech in favor of private secular speech. See, e.g., Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of University of Virginia (“In the realm of private speech or expression, government regulation may not favor one speaker over another”); Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District (“the government violates the First Amendment when it denies access to a speaker solely to suppress the point of view he espouses on an otherwise includible subject”) (citation omitted); Good News Club v. Milford Central School District (“[W]e reaffirm our holdings in Lamb’s Chapel and Rosenberger that speech discussing otherwise permissible subjects cannot be excluded from a limited public forum on the ground that the subject is discussed from a religious viewpoint”).

In other words, the law is crystal clear that religious discrimination against private speech by government actors is forbidden under the U.S. Constitution. In fact, just weeks before we sent our letter, the Supreme Court unanimously held that the city of Boston’s practice and policy of flying various political and community flags outside city hall, but refusing to fly the Christian flag, “discriminated based on religious viewpoint and violated the Free Speech Clause.” Concurring in that decision, Justice Kavanaugh wrote:

As this Court has repeatedly made clear . . . a government does not violate the Establishment Clause merely because it treats religious persons, organizations, and speech equally with secular persons, organizations, and speech in public programs, benefits, facilities, and the like. On the contrary, a government violates the Constitution when (as here) it excludes religious persons, organizations, or speech because of religion from public programs, benefits, facilities, and the like. Under the Constitution, a government may not treat religious persons, religious organizations, or religious speech as second-class.

In addition, we argued, the Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause does not prohibit “private religious conduct during non-school hours merely because it takes place on school premises.” Instead, the Establishment Clause requires neutrality, as opposed to hostility, toward religion. As the Supreme Court has stated time and again, “neutrality is respected, not offended, when the government, following neutral criteria and even-handed policies, extends benefits to recipients whose ideologies and viewpoints, including religious ones, are broad and diverse.”

Not long after we sent our letter to the Job Corp site director, we received a response: The Bible study would be approved on campus grounds during non-school hours—exactly as we requested. Students at this Job Corps site are now permitted to exercise their religious beliefs by reading Scripture in a formal gathering. We could not be happier for these young adults. They will not just be able to further their education and training as Job Corp students but experience the unique grace of studying the Bible in Christian fellowship.