California occupies a place of significance in America, considering the size of its population and economy. Its association with Hollywood and celebrity also gives it, regrettably, the role of cultural trendsetter. So when first-of-its-kind anti-religious-liberty legislation finds warm embrace in California’s state senate, it’s a foreboding signal of things to come.
Tacked onto existing law, the proposed amendment to the state’s Equity in Higher Education Act attempts to stigmatize and coercively punish any religious belief system that might dare to offer a difference of opinion about sexuality and gender. The bill strong-arms religious schools into an untenable position: Either compromise their religious identity or risk losing access to grants and government-backed financial assistance like Cal Grants. How so? According to the legislation, any religious school that made admission decisions or laid out student-conduct expectations based on religious criteria that were at odds with the bill’s protected classes would risk losing access to state funds unless they affirmed the highly contestable categories of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” – categories at odds with views about marriage and sexuality in many religious traditions.
Let’s be very clear: This amendment attempts to fix a non-existent problem. Students who apply and attend colleges do so voluntarily. There are no victims here — unless victimhood is measured in terms of institutions singled out for their countercultural religious convictions.
As I wrote at National Review Online in May, the next wave of the sexual-revolutionary agenda is to bring all dissenting institutions into conformity with progressive orthodoxy. This bill is designed to do exactly that. It undermines Christian higher education by limiting access to financial grants and discouraging students from applying and attending — thus slowly crippling religious institutions’ viability. So, as opposed to genuine difference and pluralism, progressives are proving once again that their commitment to diversity is all for show.
The intent of this bill is transparent: to target Christian schools that maintain Biblical beliefs on marriage and sexuality, and to use the threat of losing government funds to force them to change those beliefs. It puts schools into a terrible predicament. If they maintain their beliefs, their prospective students will not be eligible for Cal Grants, and the schools will suffer significant financial loss. If they give in to this requirement, they compromise their core principles.
The same group rightly points out that a bill such as this “means a Baptist school can be sued for refusing to allow a male student who ‘identifies’ as a woman to live in a women’s dormitory, or to use women’s restrooms and showers.” Absurdities such as this attack the notion of freedom to live according to its convictions. This isn’t just bad for Christian schools; it’s bad for very notion of the freedom to associate writ large.
Most egregiously, the bill takes existing exemptions that have worked for decades and narrows what type of institution can now receive them. Religious institutions have long received exemptions from some non-discrimination statutes for reasons of religious criteria, but this bill applies only to “educational programs or activities offered by an educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization to prepare students to become ministers of the religion, to enter upon some other vocation of the religion, or to teach theological subjects pertaining to the religion, if the application of this chapter would not be consistent with the religious tenets of that organization.” In short, institutions such as seminaries are protected. But other Christian higher-educational institutions — Biola University, William Jessup University, or Westmont College, for instance — might lose applicants, because these schools would be found in violation of the law and could be forced to stop participating in the Cal Grant program.
Additionally, any school that receives an exemption would be required to publicly post their alleged bigotry. This follows a disturbing trend of groups such as the Human Rights Campaign that have lobbied the Department of Education to create a database of religious schools that receive Title IX exemptions.The brazen actions of both the Human Rights Campaign and the California senate demonstrate, once again, that liberals are the true aggressors in the culture war. It also reveals the zero-sum approach that sexual revolutionaries are taking in their victory lap after these battles. Not content to allow religious schools to simply exist, the culture warriors will attempt in the next wave to shut down the dissenters.
With this new amendment to the Equity in Higher Education Act, religious liberty is now suffering a slow burn in California. It’s difficult to put into words how shockingly destructive and invasive this legislation is. Then again, the shock at this law’s intent is only exceeded by the strength of California’s commitment to a solipsistic progressivism.
— Andrew T. Walker is the director of policy studies at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Follow him on twitter @andrewtwalk.