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California Lawmaker Drops Controversial Proposal to Regulate Religious Colleges

SB 1146 won't be the religious liberty threat many Christians feared.
California Lawmaker Drops Controversial Proposal to Regulate Religious Colleges

A day after religious leaders released an open letter calling on California to protect religious liberty in higher education, the lawmaker behind a controversial bill dropped the proposal in question, allowing religious schools to keep exemptions to anti-discrimination laws related to sexuality.

Under state Senator Ricardo Lara’s amended bill, schools must “disclose if they have an exemption and report to the state when students are expelled for violating morality codes,” the Los Angeles Timesreported.

“HUGE NEWS! Sponsor of #SB1146 is amending bill to keep exemptions in place,” tweeted Andrew Walker, director of policy studies at the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). “#SB1146 is still bad, because it has the disclosure (public shaming) element, but this, for now, is good.”

“Sighs of relief and prayers of gratitude that California #SB1146 bill (restricting religious liberty of colleges) has been dropped,” tweeted National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) president Leith Anderson.

Earlier versions of Senate Bill 1146 would have prevented colleges that received state funds from enforcing codes of student conduct reflecting a college’s religious beliefs about sexual identity, including teaching that marriage is between a man and woman and limiting bathrooms to biological gender. Traditionally, California’s religious schools have received a religious exemption from non-discrimination laws. This bill would have limited it to students who were preparing for a religious career, such as ministry.

Biola University president Barry Corey and Azusa Pacific University president Jon Wallace spoke out against the proposal throughout the summer. “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,” Corey said.

CT explained the bill and its consequences, which included potentially barring standards of belief and conduct for faculty also. The bill could have prevented colleges from giving preferential admission to students in its denomination or faith.

To hold to its faith standards, a school would have had to deny taking state money, including the state’s “Cal Grants” for bright students from lower-income families. Last school year, 40 of the 321 colleges in California that were eligible for Cal Grants had policies the bill would prevent, like requiring biological bathroom use or preventing same-sex relationships.

“The goal for me has always been to shed the light on the appalling and unacceptable discrimination against LGBT students at these private religious institutions throughout California,” said Lara, according to the Times.

Lara said he didn’t want to “just rush a bill that’s going to have unintended consequences so I want to take a break to really study this issue further,” he said.

Objections to the bill have mounted all summer.

Schools including Azusa Pacific and Point Loma Nazarene University have flooded the senate committee with complaints. Students created a website explaining how the bill particularly disadvantages minority lower-income students who can’t afford to go to a private religious school without state grants. The ERLC hammered on the same point, releasing a statement that accused the legislation of “its own form of discrimination by stigmatizing and coercively punishing religious beliefs that disagree on contested matters related to human sexuality.”

“The government has no place in discriminating against poor religious minorities or in pitting a religious education institution’s faith-based identity against its American identity,” continued the statement, which was signed by 145 Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders.

The NAE agreed, releasing its own statement on the same day. “The NAE does not believe that protecting one minority community requires the alienation of others, and we urge California’s leaders to take a more measured approach.”

Last week, the senate committee noted many of the same objections.

“Given the consequences to the institutions that could be impacted by this bill and the legal issues raised by this bill, the probability of litigation against the state appears fairly high,” the committee stated. “The state could therefore incur significant legal costs, at least in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

“Glad to see the horrific #SB1146 targeting of religious schools dropped. Thanks to those of you who stood with us,” ERLC president Russell Moore tweeted after the change was announced. The controversy shows “the stakes of a state that imperils the free exercise of religion and the freedom to dissent” and “how important it is for religious freedom advocates to stand together,” he added.

Two years ago, California removed certain religious student groups, including InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, from state-run colleges. The state reinstated the groups last year.

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