“The California bill could open the door to lawsuits from students who allege discrimination because they are in same-sex relationships or because they are required to use restrooms, locker rooms and student housing that does not correspond to the gender with which they identify, college officials say.”
Dozens of faith-based colleges in California are objecting to legislation that they say would infringe on religious freedom by allowing lawsuits from gay and transgender students who feel discriminated against because their sexual orientation conflicts with church tenets.
The dispute is a new slant on a debate that is roiling other parts of the country where states have sought to adopt so-called “religious freedom” laws, which allow businesses to decline service to same-sex couples if such service violates their religious beliefs, or restrict the use of restrooms by transgender residents to facilities designated for the gender of their birth.
The California bill could open the door to lawsuits from students who allege discrimination because they are in same-sex relationships or because they are required to use restrooms, locker rooms and student housing that does not correspond to the gender with which they identify, college officials say.
“It would impinge upon our ability to exercise our religious freedom,” said John Jackson, president of William Jessup University, an evangelical Christian College in Northern California.
“The reason it impinges on those [freedoms] is it opens up the ability for a student to file a lawsuit if they feel like, in any way, shape or form, they experience something at a school like ours that is offensive to them,” Jackson said.
Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) said it is not his intent to interfere with what is taught in the classroom or requirements that students attend chapel twice a week, and that he is willing to consider changes in his bill to address some concerns.
The bill has created a storm of controversy in the Legislature. It was approved by a sharply divided state Senate last month and is awaiting final approval in the Assembly.
Lara said he is adamant that religious universities should be subject to some of the anti-discrimination laws that apply to public colleges.
The state bill targets the growing number of private universities that have obtained an exemption to anti-discrimination laws based on the argument that compliance would conflict with the religious tenets of that organization, said Lara, who is openly gay.
“These universities essentially have a license to discriminate, and students have absolutely no recourse,” Lara said Tuesday in a hearing before the Assembly Higher Education Committee approved the bill. “Universities are supposed to be a place where students feel safe and can learn without fear of discrimination or harassment.”
Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell) cited standards of conduct at some schools that prohibit same-sex relationships and cross-dressing. Lara said enforcement of such policies could be challenged in court under his proposal.