Christian Colleges Relieved By California Committee Vote

The gentler version of a bill targeting faith-based colleges moves forward

After months of fierce opposition from religious liberty advocates, bill sponsor Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat, stripped away the problematic provisions of the bill. The bill the committee voted on now requires schools to disclose if they have an exemption and to report to the state whenever students are expelled for violating the schools’ code of conduct. Lara said the reports would give him a better idea of how common such expulsion cases are.

 

(WNS)–A dark cloud that has been hanging over California’s faith-based higher education institutions has lifted—for now. The California Assembly Appropriations Committee voted Aug. 11 to pass a Senate bill regulating faith-based colleges with last-minute modifications designed to address concerns over religious liberty. The bill will move on for a vote to the Assembly floor.

Right up to two days before the vote, the previous version of Senate Bill 1146 held serious implications for the freedom of religion of the state’s faith-based colleges. The way it was written before, SB 1146 had threatened to take away religious colleges’ exemption from California’s non-discrimination law, which would have left schools vulnerable to non-discrimination lawsuits. The bill also would have affected religious colleges’ freedom to determine admissions, housing and restroom facilities, student codes of conduct, and employment based on their religious tenets.

After months of fierce opposition from religious liberty advocates, bill sponsor Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat, stripped away the problematic provisions of the bill. The bill the committee voted on now requires schools to disclose if they have an exemption and to report to the state whenever students are expelled for violating the schools’ code of conduct. Lara said the reports would give him a better idea of how common such expulsion cases are.

Religious colleges and institutions applauded the amendment. The newly formed Association of Faith-Based Institutions (AFBI) is comprised of more than a dozen Christian colleges and universities and within weeks has raised $35,000 to defend religious liberty. “Pending review of this new language, we are pleased to change our position on this legislation from ‘oppose unless amended’ to ‘support,’” an AFBI statement read.

Some uneasy questions remain: Why did Lara change his mind? Has he capitulated to opposition from religious liberty advocates? Or has pressure from pro-LGBT special interest groups demanding tougher measures convinced Lara to work on another threatening bill?

Since Lara introduced SB 1146 in February, religious liberty advocates argued it would devastate the inherently religious nature of faith-based higher-education institutions. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California and other pro-LGBT groups argued the law didn’t go far enough. They said SB 1146’s ambiguous language created new loopholes. For example, the way the bill was previously written, the law didn’t allow colleges to explicitly forbid gay students from same-sex relationships, but they could create the same effect by making a general rule that all students could not engage in same-sex relationships. The ACLU wants legislators to specify and clarify the language so it will leave no legal wiggle room for colleges.

Lara has indicated the debate over this issue will continue. He said Wednesday, “I don’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 also said he would introduce other legislation next year that may include the problematic provisions he removed from SB 1146.

For now, faith-based institutions are expressing tentative hope in further dialogue and compromise with the senator—a conversation that didn’t exist until SB 1146.

Biola University issued a statement thanking Lara for his “continued commitment on working with the [Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities] on our behalf to retain the state’s commitment to access, opportunity, and choice.” It also thanked supporters who sent “an overwhelming amount of correspondence on this bill” to their district legislators, a response it described as “unlike any other in recent history.”

President Jon R. Wallace of Azusa Pacific University, who is also the AFBI president said in a statement, “Moving ahead, we look forward to working with Sen. Lara and other members of the California legislature to strengthen this partnership, ensuring that students are educated, supported, and equipped for years to come.”

John Jackson, president of William Jessup University, also released a statement thanking Lara and expressing hope that the senator would continue showing willingness to work with faith-based institutions, but added, “We are not lulled into complacency by this decision, though we welcome the settlement. We remain vigilant to protect constitutional religious liberties while continuing to serve all those students who voluntarily choose to attend our schools.”

Jackson told me in an email that one positive side to this development is that “it has allowed the church to be awakened and for faith-based schools to understand the need to better tell our stories.”

Religious schools have dodged a “very serious and dangerous bullet,” said Gregory Baylor, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom. But he also warned that the war against faith-based institutions may not be over: “We can’t predict the future, but it’s probably more likely than not that there will be a bill in the next legislative session that will pursue the same goals. … It’s hard to believe this is the end of it.”

© 2016 World News Service. Used with permission.