SACRAMENTO (Christian Examiner) – Religious schools in California have won a huge victory after a legislator there dropped a proposal that would have forced them to give up an exemption to anti-discrimination laws related to human sexuality.
Under Senate Bill 1146, which state Sen. Ricardo Lara [D-Bell Gardens] originally said would shine a light on discrimination of the LGBT community, the colleges would not have been allowed to discipline students for sexual behavior inconsistent with the guidelines of their respective faiths.
While seminaries would not have been affected, the rule would have applied to schools like California Baptist University and other private Christian colleges such as Pepperdine University or BIOLA University.
The provision also would have made it impossible for students to receive the Cal Grant, a state assistance package, if they chose to go to a religious school that held biblical views on human sexuality and marriage or did not grant transgenders access to the bathroom of their choice. Critics said that would have overwhelmingly harmed low-income and minority students.
While we do not all agree on religious matters, we all agree that the government has no place in discriminating against poor religious minorities or in pitting a religious education institution's faith-based identity against its American identity. This legislation puts into principle that majoritarian beliefs are more deserving of legal protection, and that minority viewpoints are deserving of government harassment. Legislation of this nature threatens the integrity not only of religious institutions, but of any viewpoint wishing to exercise basic American freedoms, not least of which is the freedom of conscience.
The withdrawal of the key provision of SB 1146 comes one day after a coalition of 145 Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders and college presidents penned an open letter to the legislature claiming the bill violates religious liberty and "creates its own form of discrimination by stigmatizing and coercively punishing religious beliefs that disagree on contested matters related to human sexuality."
"While we do not all agree on religious matters, we all agree that the government has no place in discriminating against poor religious minorities or in pitting a religious education institution's faith-based identity against its American identity. This legislation puts into principle that majoritarian beliefs are more deserving of legal protection, and that minority viewpoints are deserving of government harassment. Legislation of this nature threatens the integrity not only of religious institutions, but of any viewpoint wishing to exercise basic American freedoms, not least of which is the freedom of conscience," the letter also said.
The letter was also signed by multiple distinguished professors of law, including Robert P. George, who only recently completed a term as chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Leith Anderson, chair of the National Association of Evangelicals, who signed the letter, said via social media that he and others were breathing "sighs of relief and prayers of gratitude that California #SB1146 (restricting religious liberty of colleges) has been dropped."
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, also signed the letter. He tweeted that SB 1146 showed "the stakes of a state that imperils the free exercise of religious and the freedom of dissent."
He added, "The #SB1146 controversy also shows how important it is for religious freedom advocates to stand together, across our divides."
According to Christianity Today, two presidents of California religious institutions – Barry Corey of BIOLA University and Jon Wallace of Azusa Pacific University – campaigned throughout the summer to see the bill defeated. Corey said the bill would be "a step backwards if California, a state that has long been a leader in diversity, inclusion and pluralism, could not find a way to value and honor the religious freedom of Christian universities like Biola while at the same time respecting the dignity of our students."
Sen. Lara, who describes himself as a "gay Catholic man," told the L.A. Times he was amending the bill by removing the provision that would have required religious schools to drop their exemption to LGBT anti-discrimination laws.
He said, however, that he will still press forward on a measure that will require the schools to disclose if they have an exemption to anti-discrimination laws and report when they expel LGBT students for violating their codes of conduct.
"The goal for me has always been to shed the light on the appalling and unacceptable discrimination against LGBT students at these private religious institutions throughout California," Lara told the paper.
He also said he did not want to "rush a bill that's going to have unintended consequences."
Lara said he would study the issue further, and if the provision requiring schools to report expulsions based on violations of their respective morality codes becomes law, he will know exactly the number of cases that occur annually.
The Merced Sun-Star reported that several of the schools have indicated they have no problem disclosing their exemption to LGBT anti-discrimination laws or when they discipline students for violations of their codes of conduct.
Lara's amended bill must pass the Assembly Appropriations Committee to remain in play.
California's legislature has become increasingly hostile to conservative religious groups. As Christianity Today reported, the state removed several Christian organizations from university campuses, including InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. It, along with the other groups, was eventually reinstated.