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California's Faith-Based Universities Express Concern Regarding Potential Anti-Discrimination State Bill

California's Faith-Based Universities Express Concern Regarding Potential Anti-Discrimination State Bill

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A California anti-discrimination bill that is currently awaiting a vote by the California state Assembly is raising concerns from Christian institutions which say that the bill would restrict their ability to operate according to their religious beliefs.

Though there is already a federal anti-discrimination provision in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, religious institutions are able to claim exemptions to that section in order to receive government financial aid while maintaining the institution's religious beliefs. However, this new bill, Senate Bill 1146, would specify which actions would and would not be acceptable for those religious institutions that receive federal or state financial assistance or enroll students who receive federal or state financial assistance (such as Cal Grants).

The bill, introduced by Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), has three main sections. The first section requires the religious universities to place a disclosure in what the bill calls a "prominent location" that the school is a Title IX exempted school, and why the school claimed that exemption. The disclosure must also be provided in writing to prospective students and as part of the written materials in the orientation programs. Faculty and employees must also receive the disclosure upon hire. And wherever the university specifies its rules and regulations in writing, that disclosure must also be included.

The second section requires schools that claim the Title IX exemptions to send all materials "submitted to, and received from, a state or federal agency concerning the granting of the exemption" to the Student Aid Commission. The said commission is then required to collect, post, and maintain a list of the schools that have Title IX exemptions on its website, and the reasons for which they claimed the exemption.

The third section, which is also the longest, is the portion about which religious institutions have expressed concern. Within this section, there are two main portions that may negatively affect religious universities.

The first portion is regarding restroom and housing accommodations. The bill says that religious universities would be allowed to have housing and restrooms reserved for male or female students, only if they also "afford" housing or restroom accommodations for students and employees according to their gender identity. This provision of the bill opens up greater possibility for students or employees to be able to file lawsuits against schools if they believe they have been discriminated against and have not been afforded proper accommodations according to their gender identity. The bill also says that a religious institution could provide separate housing for married students only if the same is provided also for married same-sex couples.

The second portion is regarding enforcement of morality and religious practices in religious schools. Moral conduct and housing policies can only be enforced if they are "uniformly applicable to all students regardless of the student's sexual orientation or gender identity," the bill states. Similarly, religious practices can only be enforced if "these practices are uniformly applicable to all students regardless of the student's sexual orientation or gender identity." This means that if a student were to face any consequences or form of discipline for being in a same-sex relationship, for example, while a student in an opposite-sex relationship did not, the former student may be able to file a lawsuit against the religious university.

Institutions that "prepare students to become ministers of the religion or to enter upon some other vocation of the religion" can be exempt from this third section of the bill, however. To note, a previous version stated that "educational programs or activities offered" by a religious institution that prepares students to become ministers or to enter in some other vocation of the religion would be exempt, but that language was changed to "institutions" as a whole.

Religious institutions may also prohibit the use of its property for purposes that are against their religious beliefs.

If the current version of the bill is passed, over 40 religious institutions in California would be affected, at which point these institutions would have two options: give up receiving government financial assistance, or continue receiving it but follow the provisions of the bill. Giving up government financial assistance would take a significant toll on the institutions and limit their capacity to enroll students, as those who are eligible for Cal Grants would not be able to attend these religious schools while still maintaining their Cal Grants.

Presidents of several Christian institutions, including Biola University, Azusa Pacific University, and Concordia University, have released statements regarding SB 1146, urging students, staff, and families to do what they can to oppose the bill.

"At Biola and schools like us, Christian faith is the foundation of everything. It's in every major, from biology to business to journalism and psychology. It's in our community standards and housing policies, which are in place to form students in a distinctly Christian way," wrote Biola University president Barry Corey in an article for the Gospel Coalition.

Corey and Jon Wallace, the president of Azusa Pacific University, have also met with over 100 Christian leaders from African American, Latino, Asian, and White communities in mid-July to discuss the implications of the bill and what actions they can take.

About 30 religious universities have come together to oppose SB 1146, and even created a website titled, "Oppose SB 1146. Preserve Faith-Based Higher Education."

The 'Oppose SB 1146' website encourages opponents of the bill to spread awareness of the bill and to contact state lawmakers to express their opposition.

Other Christian leaders have also voiced concerns, including the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which released a statement with other Hispanic Christian leaders.

"In representation of the Hispanic citizens of California, we oppose SB 1146. As Democrats and Republicans, we believe the bill is an unconstitutional overreach that would threaten religious liberty in California, would harm faith-based institutions, and would weaken the rich educational diversity of our state," the statement says.

"At a minimum, if passed, this bill would substantially interfere with the ability of California’s faith-based colleges and universities to conduct themselves in a manner consistent with their beliefs," it continues. "This bill would make institutions vulnerable to anti-discrimination lawsuits and unprecedented government policing. It is not inconceivable that this bill could in effect eliminate faith-based higher education entirely."

The California state Senate has already passed the bill with a 26-13 vote, and the bill now awaits a vote from the California state Assembly. If passed, the bill will move on to the governor's desk for his signature. Experts estimate that the bill will be voted on by the state Assembly by the end of August.

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