California religious freedom challenge averted — for now

California is in the midst of another religious liberty debate. After intense lobbying by religious schools and entities friendly to them, California State Sen. Ricardo Lara backed down in mid-August from proposing a portion of a bill that struck at the religious liberty of Catholic colleges and universities.

Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez had said in an Aug. 3 statement that Senate Bill 1146, also known as the “Equity in Higher Education Act,” would “violate the religious freedom of faith-based colleges and could jeopardize higher educational opportunities for the tens of thousands of Californians they serve, including many who are black, Latino, Asian and low-income.”

The bill has a less controversial “transparency provision,” requiring private universities granted religious exemptions from compliance with certain federal and state anti-discrimination laws to publicize the exemption to students and staff. The debate, however, had centered on the bill’s second component: allowing individuals who believe they have been discriminated against at a school claiming a religious exemption to pursue remedies through civil action.

Hence, a student who wishes to establish an LGBTQ club at a religious institution or marry a same-sex partner in a campus chapel, but is not allowed to do so, would be able to sue the school for damages or have an attorney general do so on his or her behalf.

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In a statement issued when introducing the bill, Lara had argued that S.B. 1146 would “close a loophole that allows private universities to discriminate against students and staff based on their gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation.” S.B. 1146 allowed an exception for seminaries and other schools that train clergy, but not the vast majority of the state’s religious colleges and universities.

Lara, a Bell Gardens (Los Angeles County) Democrat and a member of the state’s California Legislative Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus, indicated Aug. 11 that he would amend the bill to no longer include the second component, but he made it clear he would continue the fight, perhaps even as early as next year.

“The goal for me has always been to shed the light on the appalling and unacceptable discrimination against LGBT students at these private religious institutions throughout California,” Lara said. “I don’t want to just rush a bill that’s going to have unintended consequences, so I want to take a break to really study this issue further.”

The modified bill must pass both houses of the legislature and then would be sent to California Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk for approval.

Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, which lobbies the state government on behalf of the state’s Catholic bishops, had lobbied for changes to S.B. 1146. Not only did he want to ensure that the bill wouldn’t become a tool to “pare back religious liberty,” he wanted to make sure it didn’t prevent the use of state-issued tuition assistance at religious universities deemed guilty of “discrimination.”

“The author of the legislation has said that is not the case, but we’re asking, ‘If that’s so, please clarify,’” Dolejsi said. “We don’t believe the lives of students should be used as hostages in this debate.”

Placing such conditions on receiving Cal Grant money would lead religious institutions to no longer accept Cal Grants, said John Quincy Masteller, general counsel for Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) in Santa Paula, California, one of the state’s 43 religious colleges and universities that would have potentially been adversely affected by the passage of S.B. 1146. Hence, many poor and predominantly minority students would be unable to attend college.

“You’ll effectively deprive the 16,000 California students dependent on Cal Grants access to college,” he said.

While the threat of S.B. 1146 may have passed for now, the religious liberty struggle “is going to be an ongoing issue in the state of California,” predicted Ray Burnell, associate director of the California Catholic Conference. He pointed to Assembly Bill 1888, introduced by Assemblyman Evan Low, currently held up in committee. It would prohibit institutions from receiving Cal Grant funds should their hiring or enrollment be deemed discriminatory against employees or students based on “sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”

Jim Graves writes from California.