What’s the story?

Legislation pending in the California State Senate threatens to strip some private colleges and universities of an exemption that protects them from lawsuits and allows them to function as faith-based organizations.

What does the proposed legislation do?

SB 1146 would amend current California laws on postsecondary education to make two main changes.

The first is limiting the religious exemption from the Equity in Higher Education Act to educational institutions that are controlled by a religious organization specifically to train ministers. Seminaries would still be allowed to retain the exemption, but most Christian colleges and universities in California would no longer qualify.

The second stipulation is that it would require postsecondary educational institutions that receive the exemption to post a notice of it in a “prominent place” on campus, on their websites, on all brochures, and so on.

An amendment removed the language that would have allowed students who were “denied equal rights or opportunities on the basis of gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation” to sue the schools for monetary damages.

How many colleges and universities would be affected by this change?

The law would affect approximately 40 faith-based institutions of higher education in California.

How would it affect these schools?

Losing the exemption could radically affect the mission of the schools. Biola University lists numerous changes the legislation would require:

  • Faith-based institutions in California would no longer be able to require a profession of faith of their students.
  • These institutions would no longer be able to integrate faith throughout the teaching curriculum.
  • These institutions would no longer be able to require chapel attendance for students, an integral part of the learning experience at faith-based universities.
  • These institutions would no longer be able to require core units of Bible courses, nor offer students spiritual direction or pastoral care.
  • Athletic teams would no longer be able to lead faith-based community service programs.

And as John Jackson, president of William Jessup University in Rocklin, California, said in an interview with The Daily Signal:

The problem is that it provides a course of legal action for any student that feels they’ve been discriminated against in any other setting. So if this bill passes, and a student comes to our school and says, “I feel really uncomfortable that chapel was mandatory, or that the professor opened class in prayer, or with community service”—that is a required part of our faith commitments—the bill as written creates a private right of action, meaning that the student would have the right to sue a school over what faith-based schools consider a core part of our spiritual life.

Aren’t the schools just seeking an exemption so they can discriminate against LGBT students?

No. In fact, many of California’s faith-based institutions would support SB 1146 if section 1—the part that removes their religious exemption—was amended or struck from the bill. This restriction, as Biola University points out, “tightens the criteria under which a school can cite freedom of conscience in making curricular and administrative decisions.”

Does this bill prevent religious schools from getting state grants?

No. There was another bill in the California House (Assembly Bill 1888) that would have withheld certain college grants (i.e., Cal Grants) from colleges that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. But that bill never made it out of committee.

What can be done about the SB 1146?

The Association of California Colleges and Universities is reportedly meeting today (June 10, 2016) with the sponsor of the bill, State Senator Ricardo Lara, to propose an amendment that “would preserve the existing religious exemption and satisfy Sen. Lara’s concerns about protecting LGBT students who attend Christian colleges.”

Residents of California can also contact their state legislators and tell them to vote against the bill (Biola explains how to contact the lawmakers and provides a sample letter).

Citizens in other states, however, might want to identify and contact sympathetic legislators and begin taking preemptive action to prevent such anti-religious legislation from spreading to where they live.