California Takes Aim at Religious Freedom

Jul 27, 2016 |  Chance Layton

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California Takes Aim at Religious Freedom

Jul 27, 2016 | 

Chance Layton

In April, when the U.S. Department of Education released its list of religious colleges with exemptions from certain Title IX regulations, it unleashed a torrent of outrage and criticism direct against "bigoted and "intolerant" institutions of religious instruction. Two hundred thirty-two colleges had requested waivers from the Department's gender identity non-discrimination policy, which would have required the universities to open their dorms, locker rooms, and otherwise sex-segregated facilities to transgender students. These policies would have violated the colleges' religious creeds and statements of faith.

California Assemblyman Evan Low has doubled down on the exempted colleges, calling them “the worst of the worst in terms of institutions that discriminate.” Low and California State Senator Ricardo Lara are the major forces behind a new California bill that would target these institutions and strip them of their eligibility for CalGrants, the state’s version of Pell Grants to in-state students.

Senator Lara’s bill, SB 1146, represents the latest legislative attack on religious and intellectual freedom. For one, it reduces religion to a professional trade and narrows the boundaries of religious freedom. Unlike the Department of Education, which offers religious exemptions to institutions that are directly "controlled by a religious institution," SB 1146 requires that the school is training future clergy to qualify for an exemption. It assumes that doctrine matters only to the future pastor or missionary and that creeds are unimportant to the religious liberal arts student.

SB 1146’s supporters fail to grasp that a religious worldview permeates every sphere of life. It is not a profession to be done only under the title “Pastor” or “Father,” but a way of living as a husband, wife, friend, or teacher. But to Low and Lara, respect for religious doctrine amounts to Title IX “privilege.” The protection afforded to these universities gives them “license to discriminate” because they “have been used to getting their way for years,” according to Lara. He does not mention that these institutions provide a public service by educating students and strengthening civil society.

SB 1146 treats religious affiliation as a mark of shame. Under its provisions, institutions granted exemptions by the federal government must notify prospective students and hires, make note of it on campus tours, ensure every current student and member of the faculty knows of the exemption, and post it in a public location for all to see. However, even following these regulations does not protect universities from presupposed discrimination. In court, a student who sues a university for discrimination can use that school’s Title IX exemption as evidence of its discrimination.

Under SB 1146, legislative fiat trumps religious belief. Wherever the two conflict, religion must move aside. SB 1146 allows institutions to “enforce rules of moral conduct and establish housing policies in accordance with these rules of moral conduct” and “enforce religious practices,” so long as they are “uniformly applicable to all students regardless of the student’s sexual orientation or gender identity.” Such lip service to institutions’ autonomy is misleading. Many religious universities and colleges require students, employees, and faculty to sign statements of faith or “rules of moral conduct.” These range from requiring chapel attendance to banning alcohol in dorms. Many ban cohabitation, and therefore require single-sex dorms. For LGBTQIA students, many religious colleges provide single-person housing. To Low and Lara, this counts as discrimination by sexual identity and orientation. The only discernable means of complying with SB 1146 is for religious schools to mutilate or discard their statements of faith on these issues.

Moreover, would SB 1146 require colleges to disregard their statements of faith when hiring? This is the concern of Kurt Krueger, president of Concordia University Irvine, a Lutheran institution. Dr. Krueger said that "SB 1146 denies the exercise of our religious freedoms, freedoms guaranteed in the constitutions of the State of California and the United States." He explained that "the bill could be used to require us to hire faculty and staff who do not hold to our Christian beliefs," an arrangement he considers "certainly not acceptable."

Campus activists have long marked religion as the mask of intolerance. In 2014, Vanderbilt University derecognized the school’s Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter because it required its leaders to profess Christian faith. Later that year Bowdoin College kicked out the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship because its statement of faith "discriminated" against those who did not agree with it. 

Low and Lara imply that religious colleges are breeding grounds of intolerance and incite hostility toward gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students. They overlook that most religious colleges welcome all students and treat them with respect, as long as they honor the college’s religious beliefs. The equitable treatment of students is already required by law, indicating that SB 1146 is more about targeting religious colleges than alleged discrimination. The California Equity in Higher Education Act encompasses both public and private universities, including those with Title IX exemptions, and requires that they do not discriminate.

Defenders of SB 1146 counter that the bill doesn’t target religious colleges, but only withholds state funding. But many student rely on CalGrants to pay tuition. According to Biola and Azusa Pacific University, SB 1146 threatens the financial security of at least fifty faith-based institutions across California. Supporters of the bill conclude that the government “shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” But CalGrants are already awarded on a religion-blind basis. California students who receive the grants use them at the college of their choice. SB 1146 only prevents students from having the opportunity to attend the university that best fits their needs.

If Low and Lara want to want to promote diversity, nothing would be better than to continue giving students the choice to attend religious or public universities with their CalGrants. The California Student Aid Commission’s vision to “invest in educational opportunity, foster an active, effective citizenry, and provide a higher quality of social and economic life for its citizens” aligns with the mission statements of religious universities that stress service and scholarship. For decades these universities have been providing quality education and training to students. This bill is a sign of our culture’s mistaken perception that religious freedom and intolerance are one and the same. 


Image: "The blind woman" by Simon Webster // CC BY-SA