The Story: A direct threat to Christian colleges and universities in California has been stopped—for now.
The Background: In June a California state senator proposed legislation that threatened to strip some private colleges and universities of an exemption that protects them from lawsuits and allows them to function as faith-based organizations. The law would have removed an exemption that allowed religious-based colleges from making distinctions based on religion or sexual orientation. The exemption is necessary since current state law prohibits postsecondary educational institutions that receive or benefit from state financial assistance or enroll students who receive state student financial aid, from discriminating based on religious or sexual orientation.
Losing the exemption would have radically affected the mission of the schools in numerous ways. For example, faith-based institutions in California would no longer have been able to require a profession of faith of their students or be able to integrate faith throughout the teaching curriculum.
On August 9, a group of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders released a statement in defense of the religious freedom of private colleges and universities in California. A day later Senator Richard Lara, the author of the legislation, amended his bill to remove the requirement.
After Lara's announcement, the universities that had been opposing the legislation released a letter to Lara that said, “Pending review of this new language, we are pleased to change our position on this legislation from ‘oppose unless amended’ to ‘support.’”
While the change removed the existential threat to Christian colleges in California, the result may only be temporary: Lara has said he will pursue other legislation next year, possibly including the provision that was removed.
What It Means: Senator Lara has inadvertently provided the Christian community with a valuable opportunity. Had we claimed that Christian colleges were under threat of losing their religious exemption many people—including many Christians—would have claimed we were resorting to fear-mongering or engaging in slippery slope rhetoric. But by proposing his bill Lara signaled the danger was not only real, but also imminent.
Fortunately, there was enough time to mobilize opposition to the legislation, and the combination of national attention in the Christian community along with grassroots activism in the state proved to be highly effective. “I just think that this was a multifaceted effort that really showed what effective communication and strategy can result in,” ERLC’s Andrew Walker told The Daily Signal. “You get your national coalitions working with your people on the ground, coupled with strong messaging—and religious liberty, we found out, is not dead in California.”
And as John Jackson, president of William Jessup University, told The Daily Signal, “We were hearing from legislators who said that they had gotten hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of phone calls on just this one piece of legislation. And I think that’s a tremendous, tremendous encouragement to me for the health of our state.”
While the threat in California may only be delayed, it gives Christians in other states time to prepare. As we have seen repeatedly in American history, social legislation that originates in California eventually spreads to the rest of the nation. Rather than become complacent in thinking “it can’t happen here,” citizens in other states should begin identifying and contacting sympathetic legislators and asking them commit to opposing restrictions on religious colleges. By engaging in preemptive action we may still be able to prevent such anti-religious legislation from taking root.