If California Democrats have their way, Christian colleges and universities will no longer be allowed to require students attend chapel services or require them to profess a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Senate Bill 1146 would close a loophole that lawmakers say allows Christian universities to discriminate against students based on their gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation.
“All students deserve to feel safe in institutions of higher education, regardless of whether they are public or private,” said Senator Ricardo Lara, the author of the legislation. “California has established strong protections for the LGBTQ community and private universities should not be able to use faith as an excuse to discriminate and avoid complying with state laws.”
The legislation has already passed the Senate and is expected to clear hurdles in the Assembly. Thus far, Lara has refused to compromise with the state’s Christian colleges and universities.
“No university should have a license to discriminate,” he said in a statement.
If the loophole is closed, it would only exempt schools that prepare students for pastoral ministry.
“It discriminates against religious colleges, said John Jackson, the president of William Jessup University. “If we don’t play ball with state — the state will attempt to drive us out of existence.”
The president of the Sacramento-based university called the proposed legislation chilling.
“The passage of this bill would destroy the foundation upon which this university was founded,” said Jackson. “Systematically discriminating against religious institutions and preventing student access and choice to Christian higher education is bad policy and will have a negative effect on the state of California.”
Lee Wilhite, vice president of university communications at Biola University, said they, too, have serious concerns with the bill.
“It functionally eliminates the religious liberty of all California faith-based universities,” he told me. “It really does infringe on how we carry out our mission.”
Like most Christian universities, Biola integrates the Bible through all of their courses — something they’ve been doing for more than 100 years.
If the loophole is closed, it could have a devastating impact on faith-based institutions.
“We would no longer be able to require a profession of faith for students,” Wichita said. “That’s something Biola requires of all incoming students.”
Schools would no longer be allowed to integrate faith throughout their teaching curriculum, he added.
Leaders at three universities I spoke to say that they would not be allowed to require mandatory chapel attendance or mandatory core units of Bible courses.
“The danger for Biola University is that it prevents us from carrying out our mission the way we have for 108 years,” Wilhite said. “It would eliminate our ability to continue our mission. That’s why it has our attention.”
The legislation would also give students a right to sue if — for example -- they were offended by a prayer in a class.
Biola and William Jessup refute the notion that LGBT students are discriminated against on their campuses.
“We don’t tolerate harassment or bullying of any of our students,” Wilhite told me.
Many of the schools are working with the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities to urge Lara to amend his bill to include a religious exemption.
“If passed without amendments, the new law would also very likely disqualify students attending California Christian colleges and universities from eligibility for Cal Grants, a key state-level student aid program,” wrote Kurt Krueger, president of Concordia University Irvine.
Azusa Pacific University president Jon Wallace, penned a passionate op-ed for the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.
“Sen. Lara wants to safeguard LGBT students. We want the same protection for all students, including members of the LGBT community. The bill calls for more transparency from schools about their beliefs and recourse for unfair treatment. We share his concerns about student safety, transparency and recourse. With every prospective student, we share who we are, we provide the framework for how we build community and do life together and we ask those who enroll to uphold our student standards of conduct. Right now the proposed bill would invite challenges to required chapel attendance and public and communal observation of Christian sacraments such as the Eucharist and baptisms, among other activities central to our identity.”
Several of the universities I contacted said they are going to respectfully stand their ground -- even if it means taking their case to the Supreme Court of the United States.
“We are not willing to change our policies,” Jackson said. “There is a very intentional attempt to marginalize those who don’t accept the notions of sexual orientation and gender identity as the government has framed them.”
And Jackson warned that what’s happening in California could happen in other parts of the country.
“Religious freedoms are in play in California,” Jackson told me. “Ultimately, I’m concerned that what begins in California rolls across the nation.”