The "Biola bells" at Biola University , a Christian university located in Southern California.
The “Biola bells” at Biola University , a Christian university located in Southern California.

A bill in California, SB 1145, proposed to close a loophole in California law that allowed private, religious schools to make admission, housing, and faculty decisions based on gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.  Seminaries would have been allowed to continue to do so, but the bill impacted any religious institution in the state, most of whom are Christian, who wanted to exercise their conscience, as well as, protect the religious identity of the school.

The Ethics & Religious Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention published a statement signed by over 100 religious leaders, as well as, numerous leaders of Christian colleges in California and without.

The California Assembly has proposed legislation that is harmful to the free exercise of religion in higher education. In particular, the legislation disadvantages low-income minority students who want an education at private religious colleges. Though it purports to eliminate discrimination, Senate Bill 1146 results in its own form of discrimination by stigmatizing and coercively punishing religious beliefs that disagree on contested matters related to human sexuality. If SB 1146 were to pass, it would deny students’ ability to participate in state grant programs—programs that exist to help low-income students, and which are overwhelmingly used by racial minorities—at schools that are found in violation of the bill. Moreover, it would severely restrict the ability of religious education institutions to set expectations of belief and conduct that align with the institution’s religious tenets. 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.

We, the undersigned, do not necessarily agree with one another’s religious views, but we agree on the necessity of the liberty to exercise these views. At the root of the American experiment is the idea that conscience and religious conviction come before the demands of the state. Some of us disagree with the sexual ethics of orthodox Jews, Christians, and Muslims giving rise to this legislation, but we are unified in our resistance to the government setting up its own system of orthodoxy. As the American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin once said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” No less is this true than on matters of religious liberty. Where the state can encroach on one religion’s free exercise, it can just as easily trample on any other religion’s free exercise. We therefore join in solidarity across religious lines to speak against Senate Bill 1146.

We call on the California Assembly to abandon Senate Bill 1146. To ensure the future of the free exercise of religion in higher education in California and across America, we respectfully call on the supporters of Senate Bill 1146 to immediately withdraw their support of this bill, with the commitment to disavow similar intrusions in the future. Opposition to this bill is not grounded in the protection of religious liberty only, nor for the special pleading of one religion in particular, but for the protection of American society and American democracy. Such protection requires a civil society welcoming of religious diversity.

The future of a free America requires the full participation of religion in public life. Religious higher education cultivates both the mind and the soul. Senate Bill 1146 endangers the integrity of religious education institutions and discourages them from acting according to their conscience for fear of government retribution. As Americans with a rich legacy of freedoms afforded to us by the laws of nature and of nature’s God, and enshrined in the Constitution, we can do better. As we renew our commitment to religious pluralism in the public square, we should embrace debate, welcome dissent, and encourage civility as we work together for the sake of the common good and of a country we are all unreservedly blessed to call our home.

As a result of opposition that has been building throughout the summer the Los Angeles Times reports that the bill will be modified to leave the loophole in place.

Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) is removing a provision of his bill that sought to take away the exemption of religious schools to anti-discrimination laws. Instead, he will press forward with the amended bill that would still require such schools to disclose if they have an exemption and report to the state when students are expelled for violating morality codes.

“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 said.

“I don’t want to just rush a bill that’s going to have unintended consequences so I want to take a break to really study this issue further,” the senator said. He said the requirement for schools to report expulsions based on morality codes to the state Commission on Student Aid will give him information on how common such cases are.

The senator said he will pursue other legislation next year, possibly including the provision dropped Wednesday.

This is a temporary victory, and the fact the bill still requires private colleges to report such information is unacceptable albeit better than the alternative. The bill needs to be scrapped for good.

Chelsen Vicari, the Evangelical Action Director with The Institute on Religion & Democracy, warned that Christians should not be complacent.

Christian educational institutions, faculty, and students may sigh with relief knowing — for now — that they need not compartmentalize their religious beliefs away from their teaching curriculum and moral standards. 

Sen. Lara’s amended bill shouldn’t give Christians a false sense of security. The bill’s goal is still to publically shame Christian sexual ethics. Under the lawmaker’s revisions, religious instituions must report when a student is dismissed for violating standards of personal conduct.   

The result of a bill like SB 1146 points to a broader trajectory among popular culture and, as a result, in public policy. Growing public sentiment expects religious institutions observing traditional sexual ethics to either abandon their faith or suffer consequences for their conscience.

 Potential threats to religious freedom from the California state legislature and beyond are sure to resurface. Once again, we pray these challenges are met with courageous Christians’ strengthened public witness for the preservation of religious liberty and the spread of the Gospel.

Jane Robbins, senior fellow at the American Principles Project, sounded a similar warning at The Pulse 2016:

Two caveats. First, other objectionable portions of the bill remain, such as the requirement that universities report to the state if they take advantage of the religious-institution exemption from federal Title IX requirements (the state would publicize this information in an effort to shame the institutions into giving up the federal exemption).  In addition, the universities would be required to report to the state any student expulsions for violating morality codes. The bill’s sponsor said he wants to see how common such violations are. So Christian universities would have to, in a sense, justify their operations to a wannabee petty tyrant who brandishes his power just because he can.

This commissar also threatens that in the future he may reintroduce the discarded parts of the legislation. So for Californians of faith, the rule of eternal vigilance remains in effect.

It’s very likely this same issue will come up in the future.

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