- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A bill speedily passing through the California legislature threatening to curtail religious freedom at faith-based colleges and universities is beginning to garner opposition on multiple fronts.

Several Hispanic advocacy groups released a joint letter on Tuesday denouncing SB 1146, which would open the door to legal action against religious colleges and universities that adhere to traditional teachings on sexuality and marriage.

Spearheaded by the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the letter said SB 1146 would effectively “eliminate religious education in California.”

“At a minimum, if passed, this bill would substantially interfere with the ability of California’s faith-based colleges and universities to conduct themselves in a manner consistent with their beliefs,” the letter said. “This bill would make religious institutions vulnerable to anti-discrimination lawsuits and unprecedented government policing.”

“It is not inconceivable that this bill could in effect eliminate faith-based higher education entirely,” the letter continued.

State Senator Ricardo Lara, who introduced SB 1146, said the bill will “close a loophole” in state law that gives postsecondary religious institutions a “license to discriminate.”

“All students deserve to feel safe in institutions of higher education, regardless of whether they are public or private,” Mr. Lara said in a press release. “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. No university should have a license to discriminate.”

Under the legislation, religious universities that receive state student financial aid, such as in the form of Cal or Pell Grants, would be prohibited from discriminating on the basis of gender identity, gender expression or sexuality in admissions, housing and hiring.

The legislation makes clear that religious universities would not be in violation of the law for providing housing accommodations for married couples, so long as “‘married’ includes both married opposite-sex and same-sex couples.”

Separate bathrooms or housing for male and female students would also be allowed, as long as “students are afforded housing or restroom accommodations consistent with their gender identity.”

And a religious school can still enforce “rules of moral conduct” consistent with its faith, provided those rules are “uniformly applicable to all students regardless of the student’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”

California, not unlike other states, has long allowed religious institutions of higher education exemptions from antidiscrimination policies when such statutes conflict with religious belief.

But SB 1146 would open religious schools to civil litigation from students who say they were discriminated against on the basis of sexuality and gender identity.

Greg Baylor, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said SB 1146 is “one of the most significant threats that there has ever been to religious freedom” and could serve as a bellwether for other states and even the federal government.

“The concern is that the federal government, perhaps under the next administration, will think differently about the ability of religious schools to participate in federal funding streams given their policies on sexuality and marriage,” Mr. Baylor said at the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday.

He said there are no credible instances of religious schools discriminating against LGBT students to warrant such legislation. Rather, SB 1146 is about “making a statement that schools that adhere to the traditional understanding of marriage and sexuality are wrong, are behaving immorally and need to be punished,” he said.

John Jackson, the president of William Jessup University, a Christian liberal arts university in Rocklin, California, said the bill’s purported aim to protect LGBT students from discrimination is a “red herring.”

“What SB 1146 is is a coercive attempt by the state of California to disempower religious institutions from California society,” Mr. Jackson said at the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday.

Mr. Jackson said there are some who are “embarrassed” that some religious institutions still subscribe to traditional notions of sexuality, gender and marriage.

“In the same way that we receive inalienable rights from our Creator, there are religious institutions who believe that sexuality matters, that there’s a purpose, that there’s a design for our sexuality,” he said. “And then, finally, that marriage matters. I think, quite frankly, for some in California, that’s an embarrassment, and SB 1146 is an attempt to throttle, to silence, to disempower, to marginalize those who hold to those views.”

SB 1146 comes amid a growing debate in the United States over the role of the church in the public square and the scope of religious liberty.

Former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran was fired in January of 2015 when he wrote a men’s Bible-study book in his free time that espoused a biblical view of sexuality.

Even though an investigation revealed Mr. Cochran had never discriminated against his employees during his time as fire chief, city officials said the book warranted termination because it was intolerant and offensive.

Religious organizations, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, were initially forced under Obamacare to provide insurance coverage for contraception and abortifacients to their employees. Under pressure from the Supreme Court, the government conceded that a religious accommodation to the mandate was possible.

And state officials forced a family-owned pharmacy in Olympia, Washington, to distribute an abortifacient, despite the family’s religious objection to the drug. The Supreme Court in June declined to hear that case, but not before drawing a sharp rebuke from Justice Samuel Alito.

“If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern,” the justice warned.

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