A Southern Baptist-led, multi-faith coalition has urged California legislators to abandon a bill it says would violate religious freedom in higher education.
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) issued a statement Aug. 9 calling for members of the State Assembly to oppose Senate Bill 1146. The appeal – signed by more than 140 religious, academic, legal, policy and media leaders – says the legislation would especially harm low-income, minority students who seek to attend religious universities and colleges. The measure also would seriously limit the capability of schools to establish standards consistent with their religious beliefs, the endorsers say.
In the statement, the signers – including Southern Baptists and other evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Jews and Muslims –- acknowledge they do not all agree on religious issues but they “all agree that the government has no place in discriminating against poor religious minorities or in pitting a religious education institution’s faith-based identity against its American identity.”
The California proposal has drawn increasing attention and opposition, especially after the Senate passed the bill in late May. The legislation would limit a religious exemption in nondiscrimination law to seminaries and other schools that train students for pastoral ministry, theological teaching or another religious vocation. The Assembly reportedly could vote on the proposal by Aug. 19.
One effect of the measure, opponents say, would be to deny Cal Grants – which provide funds for low-income students, three-fourths of whom are minorities – to those who decide to attend religiously affiliated, non-profit universities or colleges in the state.
SB 1146, foes contend, also would effectively bar Christian and other religious schools from enforcing such requirements as a profession of faith by their students and faculty, standards of sexual conduct, restroom and locker room policies based on biology instead of gender identity and the integration of faith in curriculum.
While Sen. Ricardo Lara, the bill’s Democratic sponsor, says his goal is to protect gay and transgender students from discrimination at private schools, SB 1146 “results in its own form of discrimination by stigmatizing and coercively punishing religious beliefs that disagree on contested matters related to human sexuality,” the ERLC-initiated statement says.
ERLC President Russell Moore said the primary difficulty with the bill is “it seeks to suppress and undermine dissent, harming students along the way.”
“Applying legal or political pressure on institutions that disagree with the cultural majority of the moment is not merely unwise or unfair – it is un-American,” Moore said in a news release that accompanied the release of the statement. “A healthy American culture is one in which ideas can freely be discussed and debated, in good faith, among people who, though they disagree, would defend the right of the other to participate.”
While many of the statement’s signers disagree theologically and some disagree about sexuality and gender identity, “we all agree that our country is better when dissenters are protected, not prosecuted,” Moore said. “We stand opposed to legislation that attacks these institutions’ right to self-definition and free exercise.”
The signers call in the statement for Assembly members not only to pull their support of SB 1146 but to “disavow similar intrusions in the future.”
“Opposition to this bill is not grounded in the protection of religious liberty only, nor for the special pleading of one religion in particular, but for the protection of American society and American democracy,” they say.
Among Southern Baptist leaders signing the statement were Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board, and the six theological seminary presidents – Southern’s R. Albert Mohler Jr., Southwestern’s Paige Patterson, New Orleans’ Charles Kelley, Gateway’s Jeff Iorg, Southeastern’s Daniel Akin and Midwestern’s Jason Allen.
From the state, the Southern Baptist signers include Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California; Fermin Whittaker, executive director of the California Southern Baptist Convention; Ronald Ellis, president of California Baptist University; Roger Spradlin, pastor of Valley Baptist Church in Bakersfield; and A.B. Vines, bishop of New Seasons Church in Spring Valley.
Several presidents of universities and professors at seminaries and universities were among other Southern Baptists to sign.
Other signers include Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Alan Sears, president of Alliance Defending Freedom; Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family; Jerry Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters; Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary; Marvin Olasky, editor in chief of World magazine; Robert George, Princeton University professor; Douglas Laycock, University of Virginia law professor; Michael McConnell, director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center; Barry Corey, president of Biola University in La Mirada; and Hamza Yusuf Hanson, president of Zaytuna College, a Muslim, liberal arts school in Berkeley.
Though SB 1146 – which reportedly would impact more than 40 universities and colleges in California – would not explicitly prohibit faith-based policies, it would leave institutions exposed to lawsuits for alleged discrimination. It also would require schools to disclose to current and prospective students, faculty and employees their reasons for claiming a religious exemption under the state’s higher education law.
Representatives of California’s religious universities and colleges have met with Lara, the bill’s sponsor, and his staff to propose amendments to safeguard the current religious exemption while protecting gay and transgender students, but their efforts have yet to succeed.
The statement and current list of signers is available at erlc.com/resource-library/statements/protecting-the-future-of-religious-higher-education.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)