Because of opposition from church leaders and others, a Catholic legislator in California withdrew portions of an education bill that would have eliminated religious exemptions from state non-discrimination laws.
Democratic State Senator Ricardo Lara will introduce SB 1146 this week without a clause eliminating non-discrimination exemptions for religious schools, reported Crux. Exemptions are currently in place, but if the bill had passed in its original form, all institutional recipients of Cal Grant funding, state education aid which helps low-income students, would have been required to have non-discrimination policies inclusive of LGBT people.
In its current form, the bill will still mandate reporting on whether institutions have received exemptions from federal Title IX protections and whether students had been expelled for violating morality codes.
Several religious leaders, including Catholic Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, had opposed the earlier version of SB 1146. Gomez authored a Crux op-ed with Pentecostal leader, Bishop Charles Blake, suggesting the bill would violate religious liberty. A handful of Christian schools organized under the newly-formed Association of Faith-Based Institutions. These schools were primarily concerned with the Cal Grant funding provision. Conservative groups nationally have weighed in against the bill, too, fearful this type of legislation would spread nationally.
But opponents do not speak for all religious people in the state. Senator Lara, the bill’s sponsor, is himself an openly gay Catholic. He posted an explanation of his actions on Facebook:
“As a gay Catholic man, nobody has the right to dictate how I worship or observe my religion. And no university should have a license to discriminate, especially those receiving state funds. That’s why I will update my bill to ensure that Title [IX] universities disclose their exempt status publicly and require that universities notify the California Student Aid Commission if a student has been expelled due to their moral conduct clauses. These provisions represent critical first steps in the ongoing efforts to protect students from discrimination for living their truths or loving openly.
SB 1146 raises challenging questions about how to adjudicate the non-discrimination of LGBT people and the protection of religious liberty. In The Atlantic, Alan Noble warned against absolutizing either of these values. He called for a solution which allows a “thick diversity” in the United States so that all can flourish:
“No response to these scenarios [of LGBT students at religious schools] can erase all the conflicts and heartbreak between students, families, and academic communities, but through a model of communication, mutual respect, and dignity, schools can create a healthier environment for everyone.
“Both conservatives and liberals tend to approach the issue in absolute and uncompromising terms, but there ways to resolve this conflict that will allow for both religious freedom and protections for LGTB students while minimizing further litigation. By increasing transparency about Title IX exemptions and codes of conduct, easing the transfer process for students who cannot abide by the codes of conduct, and taking a strict stance on bullying and abuse, religious schools can retain their distinctive mission while protecting students.”
Noble made a point that cannot be forgotten in these debates. He noted that “[m]ost students voluntarily select . . . colleges because they want to be educated in a community that shares their values. . .they tend to be motivated by the centrality of their faith to their identity.”
Instead of legal battles, which may ensue anyway, religious institutions could reform themselves so they might better protect LGBT students. Noble said schools should clearly advertise what kind of community they uphold. He also wants the government to provide equal funding to students who choose religious schools which may have religious and exceptions. His final hope was::
“. . . [R]eligious schools should help students who enroll and later decide they can no longer attend in good conscience. These students should be able to transfer to another school with the administrative, emotional, and practical support of the religious school. In addition, religious schools must be vigilant about dealing with bullying and abuse and create an environment in which students who have suffered feel safe to report these incidents without fear of expulsion or retribution. Many religious schools are working toward these kinds of practices; the challenge for all of them is to go beyond policies and rhetoric to ensure the safety of all students.”
This type of work has already been undertaken by many Catholic schools, particularly in higher education and particularly in California. Reading through the “Campus Chronicles” series on this blog, one sees the many efforts that students, staff, and administrators are making to not only welcome LGBT community members, but to support hem too. Though religious exemptions are available to them, many Catholic institutions have chosen freely to implement non-discrimination policies protective of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and/or marital status. More religious institutions should follow this model, appealing to faith values of inclusion and justice, rather than waiting for the State to impose inclusion.
SB 1146 may be voted on by the end of August. Whatever the outcome, the questions surrounding it are sure to continue in California and elsewhere.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry