Calif. Bill Threatens Religious Freedom of Catholic Colleges Over ‘Gender Identity’

The freedom of Catholic and other faith-based colleges in California to operate in accord with their religious missions is being threatened by legislation in the state meant to force acceptance of a disordered understanding of human nature and human sexuality.

Senate Bill (SB) 1146 targets colleges that seek religious exemptions from California’s Equity in Higher Education Act and from federal Title IX provisions. The Equity in Higher Education Act prohibits colleges that receive state funding from making hiring, student housing, admissions and other decisions based on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. The Act also prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.

Like Title IX, the Act allows colleges to request a religious exemption from certain provisions. But the bill working its way through the California legislature would dramatically limit legal protections to only those programs or activities offered by educational institutions that are training students for a religious vocation.

The bill’s author, Sen. Ricardo Lara, referred to the current religious freedom protection for private colleges in California as “a loophole” that needs to be closed, claiming these institutions “use faith as an excuse to discriminate.” Some controversial sections of the bill have been amended since first being introduced, but the legislation still poses a significant threat to the religious freedom of faith-based colleges.

The Cardinal Newman Society opposes such attacks on the free exercise of religion of Catholic colleges. While legislators no doubt hope to achieve some good with this bill, the legislation is deeply flawed, threatening Catholic education and fundamental First Amendment freedoms.

Two colleges recommended in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College would potentially be affected by the legislation: Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., and John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, Calif.

“SB 1146 is a direct and blatant attack on the religious freedom of Catholic and Christian citizens of California advanced the state’s LGBT legislative lobby,” Dr. Derry Connolly, president of John Paul the Great, told the Newman Society. “It severely impacts citizens constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion.

“Further, the argument of discrimination against transgender citizens by faith-based colleges and universities is greatly exaggerated and false,” he added. “The allegation of discrimination is the cover for what is truly an attack on religious freedom. This legislation must be opposed by all citizens who value freedom.”

Critics argue that the bill opens religious colleges up to unjust litigation, could leave colleges unable to accept state grants used to help students pay for tuition, and would eliminate the ability to operate under any faith-based principles.

Further examples of the potential impact of the bill include:

-Faith-based institutions in California would no longer be able to require a profession of faith of their students.

-These institutions would no longer be able to integrate faith throughout the teaching curriculum.

-These institutions would no longer be able to require chapel attendance for students, an integral part of the learning experience at faith-based universities.

-These institutions would no longer be able to require core units of Bible courses.

-Athletic teams would no longer be able to lead faith-based community service programs.

Additionally: “The bill would require an institution that claims an exemption from either the Equity in Higher Education Act or Title IX to make specified disclosures to the institution’s current and prospective students, faculty members, and employees, and to the [California] Student Aid Commission, concerning the institution’s claim for the exemption.” A bill to force all colleges in the country to publicly disclose their religious exemption requests from the “gender identity” applications of Title IX was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last month.

Dozens of faith-based colleges across the country sought religious exemptions from Title IX provisions following the Obama administration’s expansion of Title IX in 2014 to include “discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.” Following pressure from LGBTQ activist groups that sought to “shame” the colleges for being “discriminatory,” the Obama administration posted online last April the colleges that have lawfully requested religious exemptions to Title IX.

The leaders of a number of Christian colleges have spoken out against SB 1146, and the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (AICCU) is working with legislators to further amend the bill. The California Catholic Conference (CCC) also opposes SB 1146, arguing that this bill is “fraught with vagueness that virtually guarantees it will be years, if not decades, before any institution in California can actually develop a clear idea of what it means.” For example, the narrowed exemption created by the bill “necessarily — and improperly —injects state regulation into the question of how to define who is a minister of a church.”

The CCC pointed out that the bill also conflicts with the religious freedom protections found in Title IX:

In enacting Title IX, Congress specifically recognized that there can in some instances be conflict between the sincerely-held tenets of religious organizations that control some postsecondary institutions, and efforts to confer legally-protected status to certain types of characteristics or conduct. … Accordingly, it is inappropriate to impose an abridgement of federal statutory rights, by re-writing the definition of institutions to whom the Equity in Higher Education Act would now apply.

SB 1146 passed the California state Senate on May 26, and could move through the state Assembly by the end of June. If signed into law, the legislation would represent yet another attack on religious freedom by the government to promote and protect a radical gender ideology that Pope Francis has warned is a danger to society.

*Updated 6/14/2016 to include comments from Dr. Derry Connolly.

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