How have Christian colleges responded?
Religious colleges say that the bill is “a solution in search of a problem, and creates bigger problems than it attempts to solve.” The accounts of expulsions or discipline, the colleges say, are few in number; in at least one instance, the basis for the dismissal is in dispute; and the colleges have policies for giving students notice of their standards of conduct and for ensuring fair treatment.
There are ambiguities in the bill’s current version that might leave room for religious colleges’ conduct policies. Indeed, at last week’s committee hearing the American Civil Liberties Union of California objected that the language is not strict enough at various points. But the primary purpose is clear.
Is that all that the bill would do?
No, it could have much broader effects. In its current form, the bill could bar a college from setting standards of belief or conduct not just for students, but for faculty—persons who are crucial to carrying out the college’s mission. This is because the bill amends a portion of California law that covers not just student-related policies, but employment policies. Lara affirmed to the legislative committee last week that he means only to protect LGBT students and to leave employment unaffected, but that would require reworking the language.
In addition, the bill could bar student-related policies not only with respect to sexual conduct, but also with respect to preferences in admissions for students who belong to the college’s denomination or faith.
Has any of the criticism of the bill changed its content?
An earlier version of the bill was so broad that it threatened to bar not only religiously-grounded codes of conduct and statements of faith for faculty and students, but also a host of other religious elements essential to many faith-based colleges such as mandatory chapel attendance or required Bible or religion courses. That version, which passed California’s state senate in May, prompted the previously mentioned public outcry. The bill now provides that a college may “enforce religious practices” as long as it applies them to all students, gay and straight. (That said, some online critiques of the bill are based on its earlier version.)
But the new version still creates serious conflicts. Under it, a college can have religious practices but cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation, sex, or gender identity—or even religious belief. It is likely to mean that religious colleges can follow some aspects of their faith and mission, but not their tenets about marriage and sexual identity.
Who will this bill affect?
The bill applies only to colleges that receive state funding—but that includes state grants and loans to students, most importantly under the “Cal Grant” program that assists academically promising students from modest-income families. Such aid (up to $9,000 yearly at a private school) can be crucial to their ability to cover college costs; if they cannot use a grant at a given college, they may find it difficult or impossible to enroll. At some Christian colleges, Cal Grant recipients make up roughly a quarter of the student body, helping those colleges serve students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities.
The colleges argue that students, including LGBT students, have a wide range of institutions from which to choose, and that a pluralistic system in education should not disfavor an institution that follows a distinctive religious-moral perspective, or the students who choose it. In 2015–16, 321 colleges in California were eligible for Cal Grants; an estimated 40 colleges (less than 15% of the total) have the kinds of policies the bill aims to prevent.