On Monday, June 13 the California Assembly amended the Equity in Higher Education Act, redefining how it narrows the religious exemption.
Authored by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Long Beach and a member of the LGBT caucus, the act would deny CalGrants to students who attend colleges that discriminate on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. Entire religious institutions are no longer exempted, but only programs and activities that are specifically related to a religion whose tenets demand discrimination.
Under current law, a private institution can abide by its religious values when assigning students to housing, hiring faculty, or enforcing a dress code. If this bill is signed into law, institutions that want to receive CalGrants will only be able to use this religious exception in certain programs or activities. These programs are mainly limited to training to be a minister and religion classes.
Lara says that this bill, also know as SD1146, is designed to prevent religious colleges from discriminating against LGBT students. “No university should have a license to discriminate,” Lara said, “Universities are supposed to be a place where students feel safe.” Under this bill, only universities which do not discriminate can receive state grants. He said the bill is not intended to interfere with religious values because it still allows institutions to have mandatory religious activities.
According to Fresno Pacific University President Richard Kriegbaum, this bill affects more than LGBT student discrimination. He points out the effect this will have on the curriculum and hiring faculty. “We prepare [students] to think, if you will, from biblical and Christian perspectives about ethics in business,” he said, showing that religious values affect all aspects of the curriculum, not just theology classes. The university wants to hire faculty who embrace these values, but the bill would not let them discriminate on the basis of religion when hiring business teachers.
While Kriegbaum says Fresno Pacific does not discriminate and “has a wide variety of students.” the university does require students to follow certain behavioral expectations. The student handbook states, “Certain sexual behaviors are prohibited. These include but are not limited to: fornication, adultery, and same-sex romantic relations.” Students who do not meet these expectations are disciplined. Rather than facing expulsion, LGBT students are just held to the same code of conduct as other students.
Thomas Aquinas College also objects to the bill. Quincy Masteller, general counsel for Thomas Aquinas, says that there is no discrimination during admission. “Thomas Aquinas College does not discriminate against anybody. The same rules of conduct apply to everyone.” These “rules of conduct,” however, include single-sex dorms and male and female dress codes. If a transgender student asked to live in the dorm that matched his or her gender identity, the application of the same rules might look like discrimination to Senator Lara.
Giving up CalGrants still appears to be an option for schools that want to uphold traditional ethical behavior. Hillsdale College in Michigan does not accept any government funding. This would be a blow, however, to colleges such as Fresno Pacific, where a large percentage of students receive state funds.
SB1146 passed the State Senate and is now being amended in the Assembly. If it passes the Assembly, the Senate will vote on the amended version of the bill.