Does This New Bill Threaten California Christian Colleges' Religious Freedom?
Image: Left photos courtesy of Azusa Pacific University and Biola University. Right photo by Franco Folini / Flickr

Later this year, California governor Jerry Brown may sign legislation with numerous harmful repercussions for the Golden State’s Christian colleges. The state is currently moving closer to adopting a bill that would subject religious higher-education institutions to regulations forbidding them to act on their religious tenets if their students receive state grants to support their studies. SB 1146 “could destroy the ability of numerous faith-based colleges and universities to pursue the mission for which they were created,” warned Ed Stetzer, the executive director of Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, in a recent post reporting on an earlier draft.

The bill has received considerable criticism from legislators and college presidents. Fresno Pacific University president Richard Kriegbaum wrote in early June that the bill “would severely restrict the free and full exercise of religious freedom granted by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.” According to Asuza Pacific University president Jon R. Wallace, the bill “significantly reduces religious freedom” and “would effectively eliminate faith-based institutions as a choice for California’s most disadvantaged students.” “SB 1146 seeks to divest us of our religious distinctives,” and “weaken the rich educational diversity of our state” wrote Biola University president Barry H. Corey in letter to faculty and staff.

In spite of that critical response, a newly revised version of the proposal passed a legislative committee last week and will likely reach the final stages of approval in a few weeks. Just what exactly does it say, and what would be its effects if it passed?

What’s the point of this bill in the first place?

The bill’s primary goal is to prevent colleges that receive state funds from enforcing codes of student conduct that reflect the college’s religious beliefs about sexual identity and the confining of marriage to male-female relationships.

Historically, California’s higher-education law, which includes requirements against discrimination based on sexual orientation, sex, and gender identity, has had an exemption allowing a religious college to follow policies based on its religious tenets. The bill would largely undo that exemption, preserving it only for programs “preparing students to become ministers of the religion or to enter upon some other vocation of the religion.” The apparent intent is that colleges that provide a general education from a faith-based perspective will no longer be protected. This includes schools like Biola University, Azusa Pacific University, and Fresno Pacific University.

The bill’s chief sponsor, state senator Ricardo Lara, has said that his goal is to protect LGBT students at religious colleges. The bill’s proponents cite accounts of students being expelled from school, allegedly for coming out as gay or transgender, which consequently causes them to lose time or money invested in that school. Proponents also want to prevent a religious college from, for example, assigning transgender students to housing based on their biological sex at birth or denying married-student housing to same-sex couples. Proponents see these policies as examples of sexual-orientation, sex, and gender-identity discrimination that should not occur in state-funded programs.

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Does This New Bill Threaten California Christian ...