Religious Liberty in Jeopardy for Christian Colleges in California

A few days ago the California State Senate passed SB 1146. The bill, presented by Senator Ricardo Lara and co-authored by Senator Mark Leno, seeks to amend the current state discrimination protection laws by removing the exemption for religious post-secondary schools. The bill is now set to be heard by the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Thursday, June 30.

Whereas the Federal law (Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972) and the current state law (Equity in Higher Education Act) require discrimination protection for prospective participants (students, employees, faculty) of public post-secondary schools, colleges that are “controlled by religious institutions” (SB 1146) have been exempt from these requirements. SB 1146 seeks to now apply these protections to prospective participants of religious institutions as well. Schools that exist specifically to train ministers (e.g., seminaries) would remain exempt but would be required to post a formal notice of their exemption in a “prominent place” on school grounds.

How Would This Bill Affect Christian Colleges in California?
The bill would severely limit Christian colleges in their ability to freely apply their theological convictions to a myriad of important school policies. The website Oppose1146.com explains:

The provisions of the proposed bill represent a dramatic narrowing of religious freedom in California. It would mean faith-based institutions would no longer be able to determine for themselves the scope of their religious convictions as applied in student conduct policies, housing and restroom/locker facilities, and other matters of religious expression and practical campus life.

Holly Scheer, writing at the Federalist, further explains the implications:

[The bill] threatens religious institutions ability to require that students attend daily or weekly chapel services, keep bathrooms and dormitories distinct according to sex, require students to complete theology classes, teach religious ideas in regular coursework, hold corporate prayer at events such as graduation, and so on. In other words, it threatens every practice that makes religious institutions distinct from secular institutions.

Beyond the silliness of eliminating such substantive differences between religious and secular organizations, the chief problem with the wording of SB 1146 as it relates to religious institutions is that it follows the Equity of Education Act by including gender, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation alongside disability, nationality, ethnicity, and race as protected classes.

I attended a Christian college from 1999-2002 and remember specific paragraphs included in every class syllabus that granted distinct provisions for students with disabilities. My college was also attended by students from multiple countries and various ethnic backgrounds. Such provisions and student diversity at a Christian college makes sense in light of what the New Testament teaches about loving one’s neighbor and the nature of the gospel: Christ died to save sinners from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev 5:9-10).

The point of recalling my college experience is to highlight the reality that Christian schools are not opposed to SB 1146 because it requires protection from discrimination on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, race, or disability. Nor do Christian colleges desire to discriminate against members of the LGBT community as a specific class of people and restrict their opportunities for post-secondary education.

Rather, Christian schools are seeking the freedom to craft their school policies and curriculum according to their religious convictions as they relate to sexuality and gender. For example, Christian schools desire the freedom to maintain gender specific bathrooms that allow only those with the corresponding biological gender to use a given bathroom. These institutions also desire the freedom to uphold the goodness of a New Testament sexual ethic among students, faculty, and staff without fear of legal reprisal.

Are Christian Colleges Fighting This Bill Because They Want to Discriminate Against the LGBT Community?
The real motivation for the Christian colleges who are fighting this bill is not to promote discrimination, but to protect religious liberty. Christian colleges like Biola University are committed to “providing safe environments for all students.” And the Biola-sponsored website Oppose1146.com states that “Many of California’s faith-based institutions would support SB 1146 if section 1 was amended or struck from the bill.” It’s not the protection of those who identify as LGBT that these Christian colleges are against. “It is the dramatic narrowing of the religious exemption in section 1 that prevents them from supporting the bill.”

Those who oppose this bill recognize that states have every right to develop, fund, and oversee public post-secondary institutions according to principles they deem are most conducive to human flourishing. Private, non-religious schools are also free to create school curriculum and policy they believe will best benefit students and faculty. In California, there are over two-hundred such options among four-year, accredited schools. In other words, no one is required to attend or work at a religious college in California, so it makes little sense to restrict the religious liberty of these schools if citizens have the “secular liberty” to avoid them.

What Can I Do?
In the end, SB 1146 would essentially devastate all faith-based post-secondary institutions in California. There are 40 such institutions currently operating in the state. If this bill is passed into law, the future of these schools will be unstable at best, non-existent at worst. But there are actions we can take to ensure this bill is written in a way that protects the religious liberty of faith-based schools in California.

(1) Learn 
Gain a working knowledge of the bill and its implications for Christian institutions. You can read SB 1146 for yourself here. Joe Carter has a good introduction to the whole issue here. Biola University has a regularly updated blog post here. You can also visit their website Oppose1146.com. William Jessup University has some helpful summary of the bill here. Holly Scheer’s article at The Federalist is helpful. Senator Joe Moorlach (37th District) opposes the bill as it is currently written. And Christian College Daily provides a running list of articles related to SB 1146 here.

(2) Pray 
God is the ultimately the one who turns hearts and changes minds. He installs leaders and removes them according to his good purpose and plan. He is our only refuge and strength, and he loves to answer the prayers of his saints. Pray that religious freedom would prevail, not for the sake of the institutions primarily, but for the glory of Christ so that these institutions can continue to equip and train and teach students according to God’s Word without fear of drastic state interference (see 1 Tim 2:1-4).

(3) Write
Write the Assembly Judiciary Committee members. Here is their contact information. You can use this sample letter to help you prepare your statement. You can also get on social media and use #SB1146 to express your concern over this bill as it pertains to religious liberty

(4) Call
Alternatively or additionally, you can also call Assembly Judiciary Committee members.  A blog post at Biola.edu provides some helpful guidance. “Identify yourself and express that you have strong concerns about SB 1146, offering any reason you choose, or no reason at all. The important thing is to express your concerns about the narrowing of religious freedom this bill would impose on Biola and all of California’s faith-based colleges and universities.”

(5) Act
There is an opportunity on June 30 to register your concern over SB1146 at the state capitol. See here for more information about this opportunity.

Photo: Marcin Wichary

 

4 thoughts on “Religious Liberty in Jeopardy for Christian Colleges in California”

  1. My only quibble is the implication that there are substantive differences between “religious and secular organizations.” It would seem that the Bible teaches that even so-called “secular” organizations are following a particular belief system with a particular powerful spirit at its head (1 John 5:19). After all, Jesus Himself declared, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Everyone is on some religious team; it’s just that many don’t know it.

  2. No. There’s a thing called separation of church and state, as in taxes and government are completely separate from religion. This means taxes should not be going to religion based schools period, however, we are allowing you to keep getting money from taxpayers (including all of the LGBT people you would ban) as long as you stop being hateful bigots. You want your “freedom” fine, we want our money back.

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