WASHINGTON (BP) — The religious liberty of California’s faith-based colleges hangs in the balance in the state legislature.
The State Assembly is considering a bill — already approved by the Senate — that Christian and other religious universities and colleges say would eliminate their religious freedom and that of their students. The legislation, Senate Bill 1146, affects any “postsecondary educational institution that receives, or benefits from, state financial assistance or enrolls students who receive state student financial aid” and would limit a religious exemption in nondiscrimination law to seminaries and other schools that train students for pastoral ministry, theological teaching or another religious vocation.
The proposal marks “the biggest threat to Christian higher education in the history of the United States of America,” said Southern Baptist academic leader R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Council of Seminary Presidents.
Opponents of the measure — which they say would impact as many as 42 institutions — contend its effect would be to bar Christian and other religious schools from requiring:
— A profession of faith by their students and faculty.
— Standards of sexual conduct.
— Policies on restrooms and locker rooms based on biology instead of gender identity.
— Integration of faith in curriculum.
— Chapel attendance.
The legislation would not explicitly prohibit such policies but leave institutions exposed to lawsuits for alleged discrimination. It also would require schools to disclose their reasons for claiming a religious exemption under the state’s higher education law to current and prospective students, faculty and employees.
Jeff Iorg, president of the SBC’s Gateway Seminary in the state, confirmed to Baptist Press that the seminary would fall under the bill’s exemptions.
More broadly, religious freedom and Christian educational leaders are calling for the legislation to be amended or defeated.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said, “California’s hostility toward many excellent colleges and universities is unwarranted and indefensible. California, like other states, has benefited immensely from the education that its citizens have received from institutions like Biola University and California Baptist University.
“Making sexual politics a litmus test for who can fully participate in the public square is a disaster for every American,” Moore said in written comments for Baptist Press. “My prayer is that California’s legislature will reconsider this backhanded attack on religious liberty, and continue to support students and universities that serve their communities.”
Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said the California legislature is “poised to make it virtually impossible for a Christian college or university to be a genuinely Christian college or university in the nation’s most populous state.”
“This would mean that the very idea of a Christian liberal arts university or college would come to an end in the state of California,” Mohler said in his June 30 podcast “The Briefing,” adding, “[I]t would be impossible to have a Christian college or university that would offer a Christian worldview education and that would have Christian convictions when it comes to the sexual and other moral issues expected of students and of faculty.
“What we’ve seen in the United States is an erosion of religious liberty in so many respects. But until now, no state has attempted to basically put colleges and universities of Christian conviction out of business.”
Ronald Ellis, president of California Baptist University, said the bill in its current form “is overreaching and could create serious challenges for faith-based colleges and universities to fulfill their missions that contribute many positive benefits to students and society.”
The legislation, he said in written comments, “appears to be based on a false and unsupported perception of widespread mistreatment. That perception is simply wrong.”
California Baptist continues working with legislators toward a revision it hopes will “achieve a satisfactory outcome that protects the rights of all citizens including those with sincerely held religious beliefs who choose to pursue faith-based education,” Ellis said.
The president of Biola University, an evangelical school in Southern California, said the bill “would substantially interfere with the ability of California’s faith-based colleges and universities to live out their religious convictions and expect their students to do the same.”
“The provisions of the proposed bill represent a dramatic narrowing of religious freedom in California,” Barry Corey wrote in a letter to alumni, donors and parents.
Sen. Ricardo Lara, the bill’s Democratic sponsor, has said he is seeking to protect gay and transgender students from discrimination at private schools. In introducing his legislation in April, he said in a written release, “California has established strong protections for the LGBTQ community and private universities should not be able to use faith as an excuse to discriminate and avoid complying with state laws. No university should have a license to discriminate.”
Biola is a leader of a coalition of institutions that has staked out an “oppose unless amended” position on the measure. Corey and his allies have met with Lara and his staff to propose amendments to safeguard the current religious exemption while protecting gay and transgender students, but their efforts have yet to succeed.
The Senate approved the bill in a 26-13 vote May 26. The legislation needs to clear committees in the Assembly before receiving a vote in the full chamber, a vote it appears could occur in August.