Department of Education: Religious Vocations Not Included in ‘Public Service’ Debt Forgiveness
A five-year-old program promising loan forgiveness for nonprofit workers has been giving many seminary graduates false hope.
Under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, debtors who make ten years of regular payments and work 30 hours or more per week in a public service position can apply to have their student loans forgiven. And while the initial guidelines—that anyone who works in any capacity for a 501(c)3 entity, which includes most religious organizations, qualifies—seem to include clergy members, the Department of Education clarified recently [PDF] that those 30 hours must be spent in activities other than “religious instruction, worship services, or any form of proselytizing.”
It’s a policy at the nexus of debates about the separation between church and state: Does the First Amendment require that government loan programs disregard the work of religious organizations? Or, for an even thornier question: How much worth do general religious activities have? The charitable operations, like food banks or the operation of homeless shelters, aren’t questioned as “public services,” unlike pastoral counseling and the establishment of intentional faith-based communities.
While it seems logical to avoid subsidizing religious practice, many students are less than pleased. Seminary graduates interviewed by the Huffington Post said they took out loans with the understanding that they would be eligible for the program, as the department’s previous guidelines and description had been misleading.
These loans can be a huge burden. Most Protestant and Jewish leaders are required to complete undergraduate education before going on to a two- or three-year divinity school program. While it depends on the school, the cost of education for the clergy can run in the six figures; students are often faced with monumental debt upon beginning their service, and clergy salaries are typically low.
As a result, clergy members and seminary students are organizing an unofficial campaign for inclusion in the public service exemption.
"It's sad because the whole point of the program was to encourage people to pursue public service to help the needy," a rabbinic student identified only as Joe told the Huffington Post. "Clergy are the first responders. When someone is suffering, they are the first ones who people go to."
Some of the greatest anguish over the rule clarification isn’t a direct result of the policy, but of the loan forgiveness program’s mechanism.
Instead of a constant check-in or progress meter, workers are kept in the dark about whether they qualify for the program until the ten years have passed. The latest document from the Department of Education has changed that— now, employers fill out a yearly document that can track employees through the system and allow them to chart their progress toward forgiveness.
Even with a better tracking system, the apparent change in qualifications has raised new questions about what role religion plays in society, and whether the government ought to consider religious activities a public service. Those same questions have been asked for centuries and are unlikely to have any easy answers.
Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.
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