Provisions of the PROSPER Act are Not Prosperous

By Caitlin Beard

As I write this, higher education is being attacked. Taxes are not the issue this time, but accessibility and inclusion in university organizations. The ‘‘Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform Act,’’ (PROSPER Act) just released by the GOP contains language that could be used to withhold higher education funding from universities that do not provide all religious groups with the same universal rights across campus as all other organizations. Registered student organizations accept school funding and are thus required to adhere to the university code of conduct. Discrimination is often addressed and prohibited in these codes, but the PROSPER Act would change that.

Part of the collegiate experience is becoming involved in organizations and uniting with people sharing common interests. Most colleges have a variety of organizations to get involved with, from religious groups to intramural sports to social justice groups like SPLC on Campus. Camaraderie and inclusion are important aspects of college. But, sometimes, groups are not all-inclusive. When a group becomes unsafe for you, your campus no longer feels like home.

Organizations have often turned people away for their immutable characteristics. This is nothing new, as exemplified by the Sigma Alpha Epsilon racist incidents or religious-based groups turning away LGBTQ+ members. However, most colleges have an anti-discrimination policy that prevents organizations from being able to exclude members based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Too often, people ostracize those who do not adhere to their own beliefs. This is especially true in a religious setting, unfortunately. Many members of the LGBTQ+ community practice a religion, as it is an inherently human custom. When these individuals wish to exercise their faith with like-minded individuals, they are often met with bigotry and exclusion for who they are.

Many of my classmates are applying to Ph.D. programs while I apply to law schools. But the game has changed, even since I began applying to undergraduate schools a few years ago. Universities are emphasizing diversity and inclusion. Many now include in the application process questions about what diverse qualities you’ll add to the community. The PROSPER Act comes at a time when people are encouraged to indicate their sexual orientation and gender identity on college applications to qualify for scholarships. But this same information, through this proposal, could be harmful. Checking boxes for certain categories could qualify for acceptance at a school whose clubs can discriminate against you. What happens if this bill is passed and your identity serves to keep you out of a group?

You may ask yourself, “Why would I want to be involved in an organization that discriminates against me?” You may not. Some do, however, when these organizations have other things that interest them. For example, a Christian, LGBTQ+ individual may want to join identity groups for each of these categories. But, as some Christian organizations such as the Alpha Iota Omega Christian fraternity at UNC, Chapel Hill have demonstrated, LGBTQ+ members do not fit into everyone’s religious narrative. But excluding members based on this is not permissible because they practice the same faith; as a couple coworkers today pointed out, doing this shifts the LGBTQ+ individual’s perception of their religion, thus making them feel excluded from their faith.

Many schools have come under fire within the last couple years because of their noncompliance with Title IV regulations. Specifically, religiously-affiliated higher education institutions. The PROSPER Act would prevent the government from punishing schools that practice LGBTQ+ discrimination. In short, schools could openly discriminate without fear of reprimand. If colleges cannot discipline groups that discriminate and states cannot do the same to their colleges, the future of discrimination is bright. College students must stand up against legislation that affects their rights to education—particularly safe education. We need to make sure campuses are safe for all. I, for one, want my campus to feel like home for all that attend. College is a place for all to prosper and build skills in order to join the workforce. Discrimination is not permitted or tolerated, as we have seen this season in the media through the brave #MeToo testimonies of victims and through the warm support for them. So why should we allow it in colleges—which are microcosms of society? This would only breed more discrimination. The anti-LGBTQ+ provisions of the bill should be removed. Discrimination has no place and this part of the PROSPER Act is not prosperous.

Caitlin Beard is a graduate student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and an intern with SPLC on Campus.