Faith-based colleges and universities in California are breathing a sigh of relief this fall after an unprecedented threat to religious liberty was averted — at least for now. Senate Bill 1146 (SB 1146) was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 30, but only after it had been substantially amended to remove language that had threatened the religious freedoms of faith-based schools.
SB 1146 was introduced by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D–Bell Gardens) in February as an LGBT-rights bill that would require any college claiming religious exemptions (to certain federal Title IX provisions, for example) to disclose those exemptions to prospective students. The controversial provisions of the bill, however, involved the actual removal of exemptions from the state’s non-discrimination laws, meaning religious schools with policies and codes of conduct consistent with traditional beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity would be subject to lawsuits and loss of state financial aid for their students.
“Faith-based colleges and universities are not asking for the freedom to discriminate,” wrote President Barry H. Corey in a July 1 op-ed in the Orange County Register. “We are asking for the constitutionally protected freedom to live according to deeply held and time-honored beliefs within a pluralistic society.”
SB 1146, wrote Corey, “would diminish an important set of institutions that produce valuable moral capital for the common good.”
Faced with political pressure that built throughout the summer and public furor from diverse communities in California, Lara amended SB 1146 in early August to drop the most controversial elements and only retain the disclosure requirements.
“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,” Lara told the Los Angeles Times, while making clear that he intends to pursue similar legislation in the future.
Religious leaders and First Amendment advocates across the country responded to the news with surprise and hope that a victory for religious rights in a progressive state like California offered rare optimism in what they’ve generally seen as a losing battle.
Religious liberty scholar Thomas Berg, who had earlier in the summer written a substantive analysis of SB 1146 for Christianity Today, called it “a striking win in a progressive state.” David French of the National Review called it a “crucial victory” and attributed it to a combination of “persistent persuasion and vigorous activism,” though he warned that while religious colleges dodged a bullet, “the threat is hardly over.”
So how did things turn out this way? How did religiously conservative colleges and universities successfully campaign to preserve religious liberty in one of America’s bluest states?
The bill first caught the eye of legal counsel and presidents at faith-based schools in California soon after its introduction in February. As it progressed through the state legislature, lobbyists for the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU), whose membership includes more than 30 religiously affiliated institutions (including Biola), worked with Lara to amend the bill to be less harmful to faith-based schools. When the bill passed the state Senate with little opposition in May, however, and amendments in a June Assembly committee meeting made the bill even more of a threat, public outcry began to grow.
Biola put together a website (opposeSB1146.com) with information on the bill and released a video message from Corey, who said SB 1146 would “send a message that the tolerance and inclusion that California stands for does not extend to certain religious groups.” Other presidents of faith-based schools spoke out, including William Jessup University’s John Jackson in a Sacramento Bee op-ed and Jon Wallace of Azusa Pacific University, who expressed concerns in a video statement that the bill would narrow student choice and student access.
Several faith-based institutions, including Biola, Azusa Pacific, California Baptist, Westmont, Point Loma Nazarene and William Jessup, formed a legal association in July to pool resources and defend their shared interest in preserving faith-based higher education. This Association of Faith-Based Institutions (AFBI) hired lobbyists to work in Sacramento and, among other things, aired radio ads and sent mailers about the bill to California residents.
The organized efforts of faith-based institutions worked. Thousands of alumni, students and supporters of religious schools in California bombarded their state representatives with calls and letters over the summer, resulting in what some Sacramento insiders said was an unprecedented level of public outcry on a bill.
“This response signaled to moderate or wavering representatives that such a measure would not pass unnoticed and without a political price,” said Darren Guerra, associate professor of political science at Biola, in an article he coauthored with Andrew Walker for The Public Discourse.
Concerns over SB 1146 went beyond California, with national media outlets taking note and prominent religious freedom advocates expressing fears that the bill could set a dangerous precedent for a nation already struggling to hold in tenuous balance both First Amendment protections for religious groups and nondiscrimination protections for LGBT individuals.
Russell Moore and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission published a multifaith statement whose signatories included Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon and Muslim leaders. Organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals and the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities were also involved, hosting conference calls with faith leaders and creating websites with resources and links.
Church leaders from African-American, Hispanic and Asian faith communities led efforts — including information luncheons and bus rides to Sacramento — throughout the summer to mobilize churches against the bill.
President Corey spent several days in Sacramento, meeting with key legislators and backers of the bill to correct some of the misperceptions about faith-based higher education and to seek some mutual understanding of ways forward.
One of the key concerns for opponents of SB 1146 was the effect it would have on low-income and first-generation students who rely on Cal Grants, a key source of state financial aid that would no longer be available to students attending religious schools claiming exemptions from nondiscrimination laws.
African-American church leader Bishop Charles E. Blake and Archbishop José H. Gomez of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles co-authored a statement on SB 1146 emphasizing this point, writing that “those who would truly be punished by this bill are California’s low-income and minority families — including millions served by our respective faith communities here in Los Angeles.”
Though Lara stated repeatedly that he never wanted SB 1146 to jeopardize Cal Grant access for California students, the bill as amended in late June became clearly about Cal Grant access.
The projected fiscal impact to California was also a factor that raised concerns in Sacramento about SB 1146. Legislative reports detailed how the bill would likely lead to significant legal costs for the state and a costly surge of students at public colleges and universities, since thousands would no longer be able to afford to attend religious private schools.
Speaking to faculty and staff at the beginning of the fall semester, Corey remarked on the encouraging resolution to SB 1146.
“I believe we have some breathing room now, and for this we are grateful to God,” he said. “We are not declaring victory, not saying, ‘We won and they lost.’ But we are thankful for God’s mercy and hopeful that in future bills we will be involved in the early stages, unlike SB 1146."