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Jun 24, 2016
Religious Liberty

California's Religious Liberty Moment—Coming to a State Near You

On the verge of a precedent that should not be set. |
California's Religious Liberty Moment—Coming to a State Near You
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The California legislature is poised to consider legislation that could destroy the ability of numerous faith-based colleges and universities to pursue the mission for which they were created. SB 1146, one of two similar bills recently introduced into the California legislature, would essentially restrict fully faith-based education to seminaries.

As explained in the Biola University news:

If passed as is, this bill would strip California’s faith-based colleges and universities of their religious liberty to educate students according to their faith convictions.

The proposed legislation seeks to narrow a religious exemption in California only to those institutions of higher learning that prepare students for pastoral ministry. This functionally eliminates the religious liberty for students of all California faith-based colleges and universities who integrate spiritual life with the entire campus educational experience.

Biola is one of the schools potentially affected if SB 1146 is passed into law. Barry Corey, the president of Biola, expressed his concerns to me via email while on his way back from Ethiopia:

California’s faith-based colleges and universities make profound contributions to the common good of society, not in spite of but because of our deeply held faith convictions. It 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.

Richard Kriegbaum, president of Fresno Pacific University, writes on the school blog:

Stated very simply, SB 1146 would severely restrict the free and full exercise of religious freedom granted by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. This bill would limit freedom of religious faith and practice to programs, courses and activities directly and narrowly intended to train pastors and similar vocational church leaders. At FPU religious freedom would only apply to the seminary and to undergraduate programs such as Bible and Christian ministry.

This is no minor thing.

There is a commonly held—and erroneous—belief that Christian colleges and universities are backward scientifically, repressive sexually, and inept socially. That such institutions are academically weak, Bible-thumping, 17th century good-old-boys clubs full of bigots and legalists. For those who hold such views, cutting off state or federal aid to these institutions, or to force them to shed some of their strongly-held Christian convictions, would be no great loss.

Many faith-based universities hold to the traditional Christian view that sex and gender are distinct and united. If SB 1146 is passed without amendment, the state of California would drastically limit the religious freedom of such institutions to believe and live according to these traditional beliefs. In other words, the “free exercise of religion” becomes meaningless or restricted to only those schools that train pastors for ministry.

Writes Brett McCracken of Biola University:

[SB 1146] now moving through the California legislature would force Christian colleges and universities into submission when it comes to their beliefs and policies regarding sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). Sec. 1 of SB 1146 would remove an existing religious exemption and narrow it so that faith-based institutions (including Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, etc) could no longer think and behave differently on these most central human questions. What Sacramento says is true about SOGI is now what every knowledge institution in California must acknowledge in practice (if not in belief) to be true.

So much for valuing diversity.

That the Founding Fathers never intended this kind of schism between academia and religion is evident. The earliest institutions of higher learning in the United States were Christian schools, founded by Christians, for Christian education. Indeed the first Christian college, Harvard, was founded over a hundred years before the founding of the country. Other such schools were William & Mary (1693, Church of England), Yale (1701, Puritan), Princeton (1746, Presbyterian), Columbia (1754, Church of England), Rutgers (1766, Dutch Reformed), and others.

The first college chartered to grant degrees to women was Macon, Georgia’s Wesleyan College in 1836. In 1881 80% of colleges in the U.S. were church related. Oberlin College, named after minister Jean-Frederic Oberlin, was the first college in the United States to admit students of all races and in 1844 graduated the first black student, George B. Vashon. Vashon became one of the founding members Howard University which was birthed from a vision for a black theological school. Its founding president, Oliver Otis Howard, was known as the “Christian General.”

Christian colleges and universities have always and continue looking outward, seeking to love and serve others, as Jesus did.

One of the reasons I’m going to serve at Wheaton College is I desire to be involved in the kind of educational setting where followers of Jesus are trained and equipped to impact our culture in the same positive ways Christians have historically.

This California moment must be stopped, but we also have to be honest about something.

I work hard to avoid excessive political partisanship, which makes some evangelicals unhappy, I assure you. As I do every year, I will invite representatives of both major campaigns to The Exchange for interviews and to make their case.

In this case, I’ve written this whole article without using the word Democrat, but it would be intellectuality dishonest not to point out that what is now happing in California is led by the Democratic Party. And, if this moves forward, it will soon be happening nationally, led by that same party.

If you care about Christian education anywhere in the United States, then speak up now. If you are in California, call your representative, and not just the ones who agree with you. But, since this is a Democratic Party initiative, perhaps you can kindly ask your Democratic representative if there is no place for people of sincere belief to continue the great work that they do, including the benefits of religious exemption that go back decades.

If you are a Democrat, what a great opportunity it would be to share that with your elected representaive and encourage some space for those who dissent from the new cultural reality.

That would be pretty tolerant, I think…

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Posted:June 24, 2016 at 10:00 am

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California's Religious Liberty Moment—Coming to a State Near You