California Bill Places Faith-Based Colleges Under Threat

Photo credit: American Life League via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)
Photo credit: American Life League via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Daily Signal reports on a bill in California that may serve as a model for forces in other states seeking to circumscribe religious faith in public life. It could also provide a blueprint for the federal government, which on this issue is every bit as radical as the California legislature.

Current California law bans colleges and universities from “discriminating” based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression, but contains an exemption for “an educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization if the application would not be consistent with the religious tenets of that organization.” This means private, religious colleges and universities may make admission, housing, and personnel decisions in line with their faith.

But proposed legislation would severely narrow that exemption. Here is the language: “This chapter shall not apply to educational programs or activities offered by an educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization to prepare students to become ministers of the religion, to enter upon some other vocation of the religion, or to teach theological subjects pertaining to the religion, if the application of this chapter would not be consistent with the religious tenets of that organization” (emphasis added).

The Daily Signal reads this language to limit the faith-based exemption to specific programs for preparing students for ministry or theological education. That’s bad enough — such language would mean a faith-based college could not comply with its religious tenets with respect to faculty, students, administrators, or general program activities in, say, the math department. Since the vast majority of students at faith-based colleges are not headed for the ministry or theology-school faculty, the narrowing of the exemption in this matter would pretty much wipe it out.

But there’s a way to read the proposed language that’s even worse. Suppose the clause beginning with “to prepare students” modifies “institution” rather than “programs or activities.” That is, suppose the language is meant to limit the exemption to institutions that exist to prepare students for ministry, etc. That would mean, in essence, that only seminaries could use the exemption. Because the average faith-based college doesn’t exist only for preparing ministers and theology professors, it wouldn’t be entitled to the exemption.

The general view seems to be that the first reading — evil, but a slightly lesser evil — is the one intended, although no one would be surprised if a radical California judge applied the broader reading. But either way, this is a chilling assault on religious freedom in America. It means faith-based institutions of higher education would be forced to violate the tenets of their faith in admission, housing, and employment. If a Christian or Jewish college, for example, cannot ensure that its students and faculty adhere to its religious beliefs, it is no longer a Christian or Jewish college.

And then there is the legislation’s requirement that any institution receiving even the constricted exemption under this law, or under federal Title IX, prominently display notice of that exemption in administrative offices, on materials sent to prospective students, and in orientation and faculty materials. (The federal Department of Education engages in similar branding of institutions receiving a Title IX exemption.) Historically, cases of government-sponsored persecution have almost invariably been foreshadowed by marking the persecuted class for public opprobrium — and it is not difficult to see this at work here.

California thus moves to the forefront of the campaign to, ultimately, limit the free exercise of religion to within the four walls of a church. For the time being, the State is saying, the knuckle-draggers who cling to their superstition to the detriment of unlimited sexual freedom will be humored — but only under very limited circumstances. Except in church and at home, they shall not be allowed to pass on their faith to their children. We, the State, shall control the public square and all educational institutions within it, and dissidents from the State sexual orthodoxy shall be repressed and publicly shamed.

Religious faith will be restricted to tightly controlled arenas — where it can eventually be snuffed out for lack of oxygen.

Unlike the proponents of this California bill, Christians know the faith will never die. But that doesn’t mean it will be allowed to flourish in the meantime. Persecution is likely, and the Government will engage in it with ever-increasing vigor, all in the name of “nondiscrimination.” As goes California . . .

Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow with the American Principles Project.