States should protect a student’s right to choose a collegiate experience that fully accords with their religious faith. In turn, states should also ensure the right of religious colleges and universities to deliver that experience. Yet, in California, Senate Bill 1146 is challenging these basic liberties. In the words of one commentator, the measure “seeks to limit the historically broad exemptions the state and federal governments have provided religious schools to, well, be religious.”
Under current California law, faith-based colleges and universities can apply for blanket exemptions from the state’s higher education anti-discrimination law as long as the school is “controlled by a religious organization.” If granted, the religious exemption permits Christian-based schools like Biola University to, among other things, restrict admittance to Christians or require mandatory chapel attendance.
Unless the current bill’s language is revised, Lee Wilhite, a Biola University vice president, warns that the far-reaching legislation “could potentially eliminate our ability to even pray before class or at events on campus.” Meanwhile, the president of California’s Lutheran-based Concordia University, Kurt Krueger, wrote last week that “the most troubling provision of this bill limits the religious liberty to integrate faith and learning throughout the educational experience.” Concordia and schools like it are especially concerned about losing “the freedom to hire only Christian faculty and staff."
Ostensibly, California’s Senate Bill 1146 is aims to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and employees from discrimination by religious schools after they enroll or begin work. Yet, this legislation prevents LGBT discrimination by discriminating. The irony, however, is lost on California Assemblyman Evan Low, who called religiously exempt schools “the worst of the worst in terms of institutions that discriminate.” The author of the bill, Sen. Ricardo Lara, commented in the Los Angeles Times: “These universities essentially have a license to discriminate, and students have absolutely no recourse."
In the past decade there have been a number of similar claims made against religious clubs housed at institutions of higher education. In 2011, for example, Grinnell College’s Christian group lost its official status after denying leadership positions to LGBT students. In 2012, Tufts University initially voted to withdraw recognition from a Christian group before reversing the decision. With varying results, similar challenges have occurred at Bowdoin College, California State University, Vanderbilt University, University of North Carolina and Rutgers University, to name a few. Some schools such as the University of Florida and the University of Texas offer religious exemptions to anti-discrimination policies.
As the New York Times points out, many of these conflicts arise when Christian campus groups refuse "to agree to the college’s demand that any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should be able to run for election as a leader of any group, including the Christian association."
These conflicts have been on the rise, and the California legislation is simply the latest and most troubling of such cases stemming from the often unacknowledged tension between emerging LGBT rights and religious liberty. The approach to this tension, however, should not be a zero-sum game of winner take all. Rather, negotiating parties should seek to establish fairness for all affected. The Utah compromise passed last year stands out as an example of balancing religious liberty and antidiscrimination.
Discrimination against LGBT students remains a critical concern. Yet, just as LGBT students deserve protection from discrimination and the freedom to associate, so too do religious students. And if dozens of institutions like Biola University are forced to materially change their identity or closet their Christianity, it will not diminish the level of discrimination in California but unwittingly increase it.