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CA bill would remove religious exemption for most faith-based colleges

June 23, 2016
Valerie Schmalz

Gay-rights driven legislation approved by the California Senate and now before a state Assembly committee would narrow religious freedom for faith-based colleges and universities, say the California Catholic Conference and others.

At religious institutions, the legislation could disqualify student eligibility for Cal Grants, an important source of financial aid, opponents said.

SB 1146 was introduced by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, and co-authored by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and was sponsored by LGBTQ rights organization Equality California and the ACLU. The bill would affect any higher education institutions that receive state money of any kind, including student financial aid – effectively all colleges in California.

The bill would severely curtail the number of institutions able to claim exemption from state anti-discrimination laws, including those governing sexuality, on religious grounds and would impose extensive requirements for publicizing the exemption.

Sen. Lara said in a press release that Senate Bill 1146 closes “a loophole that allows private universities to discriminate against students and staff based on their gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation.”

It passed the state Senate 26-13 on May 26. If approved by the Assembly appropriations committee, it could be before the Assembly for a full vote by the end of June.

The bill is “a solution in search of a problem,” said Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the California bishops. “SB 1146 would impede the ability of these schools to operate consistent with the tenets of their faith or to express what their beliefs are in the life of the school.”

The existing Equity in Higher Education Act prohibits discrimination at any post-secondary educational institution that receives, or benefits from, state financial aid or enrolls students who receive state aid. However, the law exempts religiously controlled colleges and universities to infuse faith into the curriculum, define campus standards of behavior and hire key faculty and staff supportive of a school’s mission and belief.

Under SB 1146, the exemption would apply only to seminaries and religious departments that train for religious jobs, according to the Senate bill analysis and a letter from Derry Connolly, president of John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, who said the bill is “threatening and overreaching.”

The Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities has offered amendments to ensure institutions disclose their religious exemption and provide recourse for students who claim discrimination, Dolejsi said. If Sen. Lara accepts the amendments, and agrees to “remove the ideologically motivated attack on the religious character of these faith-based schools,” the association will support the bill, Dolejsi said.

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