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Religious Liberty Crisis Averted in California

The war is far from over, but a recent battle in California shows that pluralism, religious liberty, and traditional values can be defended where there is a will to mobilize and resist.

Over the years, California has often presented itself as a thriving example of pluralism and openness. It has promoted a “live and let live” ethos that didn’t please everyone but did allow a diversity of lifestyles and thought to flourish. Yet this summer, this once proud state was on the verge of descending into an extraordinary level of intolerance.

Thanks to the aggression of the state legislature, California religious colleges faced an existential threat. SB1146, a bill sponsored by California State Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), threatened to drastically limit religious freedom protections for religious colleges and universities and to remove the ability of socioeconomically disadvantaged students to choose religious schools when using state grant funding. The most egregious element of the bill would have narrowed the types of schools that could receive an exemption from California’s anti-discrimination law, a law that includes the contested categories of sexual orientation and gender identity. Any school that upheld expectations about student behavior in accordance with a religious sexual ethic at odds with California law would be found in violation of the law. As a result, the overly narrow exemption that the law sought would only leave institutions such as seminaries protected. If it had passed, it would have exposed faith-based institutions to endless costly lawsuits simply for remaining faithful to their religious traditions, putting these institutions on the wrong side of California law.

California has an impressive array of religious institutions of higher learning, which are affiliated with Jewish, Catholic, Islamic, and Protestant faith traditions. In fact, with forty-two such institutions, California has the second-highest number of religious colleges of any state, and it has the most member schools in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). These institutions have served the public good as part of the diverse array of higher education institutions in California, and they have served in accordance with the California Master Plan for Higher Education that has been in place for over a half century. Many of these institutions would not have been able to sustain the loss of funding from state grants nor the costs of litigating frivolous lawsuits if SB1146 had passed. Thus, this law would probably have put faith-based higher education in California on the road to extinction.

SB1146 ostensibly sought to protect LGBT students who attend these schools, yet members of the legislature continually rejected sensible changes to its language that would have protected both LGBT students and the colleges’ religious liberty. This bill moved quickly through the California Senate in late spring, rapidly made its way through several Assembly committees in the summer, and seemed inevitably bound for the governor’s desk. However, one day before the final committee vote, momentum on the bill stalled. Facing mounting pressure from both LGBT constituencies and the religious communities that would have suffered greatly as a result of the bill, Senator Lara announced his intention to drop the provision that would narrow the religious exemption, leaving only disclosure requirements in place. The disclosure provision requires schools seeking an exemption to state publicly that they receive an exemption, so that students are made aware in advance of applying. While the disclosure provision remains problematic because it arbitrarily requires schools to disclose that they receive legal exemptions, it is much less so than the more odious provision that narrowed what types of schools could receive an exemption.

So how did a fledgling minority of religious conservatives stop a supposedly unstoppable bill in the bluest of blue states? What lessons can be learned from the battle over SB1146?

Respectful but Firm Engagement

First, college presidents led by Barry Corey (Biola), Jon Wallace (Azusa Pacific), John Jackson (William Jessup), and many others engaged respectfully yet firmly with Senator Lara and other legislators as word of SB1146 emerged. This opened the door for university attorneys and leaders to suggest acceptable amendments as the legislative process moved forward. Although such efforts initially seemed futile, these relationships proved vital once the efforts to pass the bill in its most virulent form began to stall and members of the legislature started to look for language that was acceptable to religious institutions. The religious schools worked through traditional lobbying groups such as the AICCU (Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, which also represents schools like Stanford and USC) and quickly formed their own association of California religious colleges to meet this growing threat.

Once early efforts at fruitful engagement proved ineffective, the universities began to activate their alumni and stakeholder networks to respectfully but forcefully engage their representatives on the issue. These efforts quickly widened into broader engagement with religious and political leaders at the national level.

National Networks

It has become conventional political wisdom that what happens in California rarely stays in California. To their credit, other regional and national leaders recognized that this existential threat to California religious higher education represented the first potential domino in a broader movement that could soon spread to other states and the federal level if it was not stopped. Messaging focused on the victimization of would-be grant recipients, a disproportionate number of whom are low-income minority students. Moreover, bipartisan coalitions that support religious liberty signaled that the gloating confidence of sexual progressivism had overstepped its bounds.

Groups like Alliance Defending Freedom, the Heritage Foundation, the Colson Center, the Becket Fund, and many others engaged California’s overreaching SB1146. Notably, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission spearheaded a remarkable effort that gathered an impressive list of signatories from across the theological and political spectrum including Jewish, Catholic, Islamic, Protestant, Mormon, and agnostic leaders who spoke unequivocally against the bill. The statement included individuals who disagree with religious conservatives on matters of sexuality but care about religious liberty. These efforts motivated citizens nationwide to get involved, and they provided important moral support and solidarity to those on the ground in California. State legislators received massive pushback from concerned citizens in the form of emails, phone calls, and letters. This response signaled to moderate or wavering representatives that such a measure would not pass unnoticed and without a political price.

Mobilizing African-American and Latino Churches

Perhaps most notably in a “majority minority” state like California, African-American and Latino churches played a crucial and possibly decisive role as they mobilized to voice concerns to their local and state representatives. This effort may have been the deciding factor for many urban and moderate Democratic legislators.

In recent years, increasing numbers of minority students have been enrolling in religious institutions of higher education in California. For example, more than 52 percent of Azusa Pacific’s student body belongs to a racial minority, as does 48 percent of Biola University’s. Latinos represent a large proportion of this growth, and a number of schools are certified by the federal government as Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs). For example, Vanguard University has a student population that is more than 38-percent Latino, and Latinos made up 64 percent of its last incoming freshman class. Yet the financial obstacles for such students can be daunting. That’s why the potential loss in state grant funding was such a disproportionate threat to these communities.

On the political side, Latinos and African Americans make up  40 percent of eligible voters in California. These communities may be the least likely to support Senator Lara’s LGBT agenda. In 2008, as minority communities came out in record numbers to vote for Barack Obama, they also propelled Proposition 8 (which defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman) to victory in California (later to be overturned in federal court). Indeed, 70 percent of African Americans and 53 percent of Latinos supported Proposition 8, while a majority of white voters rejected it. In addition, a recent Pew Poll shows that gay marriage and other LGBT issues still have somewhat lower support in the Latino and African-American communities than among white respondents. For example, research shows that less than half of African Americans support gay marriage as of 2016, with support dropping to only 38 percent among those who identify as religious.

Indeed, SB1146 prompted an unprecedented joint letter on August 2 by prominent Catholic and African-American Protestant leaders. Archbishop Jose E. Gomez of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and influential African-American Bishop Charles E. Blake, Presiding Bishop of the Church of God in Christ and Pastor of West Angeles Church of God in Christ, argued in their letter that SB1146 was a violation of religious liberty and would disproportionately harm minority students. Such efforts by minority church leaders paid off as rank-and-file church members began to engage as well.

In a one-party state like California, the strong stance of African-American and Latino Christians, Catholic and Evangelical alike, garnered the attention of Democratic lawmakers. These politicians found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being forced to choose between African-American and Latino constituents on the one hand, and the LGBT lobby on the other. The former is much more important to actually winning elections in California, while the latter is important to the fashionable elites in upscale enclaves. In the end, there were not enough votes to pass SB1146 in its most virulent form, thus prompting Senator Lara to abandon the aspect of the bill that narrowed the exemption.

Keeping Up the Fight

For now, the efforts to shut down religious education in California are on hold, but Senator Lara promises that he will continue his efforts even as early as next year. Surely, groups like Equality California and the ACLU who were pushing for the most extreme measures in the bill will regroup and try again.

Substantively, SB1146 was an utter disaster. It violated the religious liberty of students eligible for state grants by downgrading their basic rights to freely exercise their religion. SB1146 was also a solution in search of a problem. The fact is, there is not widespread abuse of LGBT students at religious schools. The leaders of these schools repeatedly assured Senator Lara and others that they take great pains to ensure the safety and care of all of their students. In fact, the LGBT students who attend these schools do so voluntarily. This point raises a key question: why do LGBT students attend religious schools in the first place? Why would they choose to attend schools animated by traditions that teach that same-sex sexual acts are sinful and transgenderism is an inappropriate understanding of human identity? Perhaps they attend for the same reason many students attend. As human beings, the deepest part of them wants to understand, explore, and experience the pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Perhaps they realize—like many other students who attend such schools—that religious traditions provide unique insights into human flourishing. Perhaps like most students, they simply want a good education free from campus cultures that are dominated by social pathologies or distractions, such as binge-drinking, utilitarian social-climbing, the hook-up culture, sexual assault, or narrow and radical ideologies that suppress free speech and assembly. To be sure, religious schools are not totally immune from such campus trends, but they strive to form communities shaped by voluntary conduct codes that encourage self-control, moderation, and human flourishing in accordance with their respective religious tenets and traditions. Maybe LGBT students struggling with their sexuality intuitively know that they are more than their sexuality. Perhaps they see that reducing their identity and their humanity to their sexual impulses is ultimately a dehumanizing act.

One of the key ironies of SB1146 was its overt paternalism toward LGBT students. The bill assumed that LGBT students are not capable of choosing institutions that meet their needs and implied that the identity of these students is totally defined by their sexual impulses. Religious institutions can help broaden their appeal to the general population by better telling this piece of the story. They should help all people—religious and non-religious alike—to see that, far from being institutions of guilt and oppression, these schools are communities that call all students—gay and straight—to higher standards of conduct and intellectual engagement in order to help them flourish as human beings created in God’s image.

In a post-Obergefell world, we must determine what true tolerance and pluralism will look like. Clearly, SB1146 failed to advance those goals. Thankfully, this attempt to treat religious or moral beliefs about marriage and human embodiment as invidious discrimination failed as well. Citizens of goodwill should rejoice over SB1146’s failure. While cultural battles will rage on, the defanging of SB1146 signals that institutional religious liberty remains strong. The war is far from over, but the battle in California shows that pluralism, religious liberty, and traditional values can be defended where there is a will to mobilize and resist. In the end, citizens who value the right of conscience must be prepared to offer respectful but firm resistance when faced with shortsighted efforts to undermine the healthy pluralism that has long characterized our diverse and vibrant polity.

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