California religious colleges dodge a bullet. But what's next?

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A bill that threatened to defund California religious colleges that do not accept same-sex marriage and gender ideology has been amended, but the danger could return.

"The schools dodged an enormous bullet," Gregory S. Baylor, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, told CNA Aug. 16. "The provisions that were dropped would have made it very difficult for them. They would have been forced to choose between remaining faithful to their religious beliefs about a variety of issues and participating in the CalGrant program."

Baylor's religious freedom legal group helped defend some of the California schools targeted by California legislature bill S.B. 1146.

A previous version of the bill would have imposed strict anti-discrimination rules on state-backed student grants, called CalGrants, to schools that disagree with same-sex marriage and gender ideology. Schools would have had to decline to accept students with the grants, change their morality- and religion-based policies, or face the risk of lawsuits.

Critics of the original bill said that it would stigmatize and punish religious colleges and universities and deny their disadvantaged students' needed funds for their education.

"The most dangerous provision of S.B. 1146 were dropped," Baylor said. "Certainly the schools we have been working with are happy about that," he said.

But he also had a warning.

"I think it would be a mistake for anyone who supports religious freedom to be lulled into a false sense of security about what's coming in California," he added. "The prior version of the bill passed the senate, and passed three committees in the assembly, and appeared to be destined for passage in the full assembly and signature by the governor. That is a frightening prospect."

The bill's prime sponsor has promised to continue considering the question and could introduce legislation in the next legislative session that will have the same goals as the original version of the bill, Baylor said.

"Supporters of religious liberty, schools, and parents need to be prepared for the conflict that almost certainly is coming, and the virtually existential threat that this poses to their religious liberty," he said.

The bill still requires religious institutions of higher education to disclose their requested federal religious exemptions in a prominent location, as well as in written materials sent to prospective students, at student orientation programs, and to new hires.

The institutions must also disclose this exemption to the California Student Aid Commission, echoing a new U.S. Department of Education requirement. The state commission must publish a list of schools that disclose exemptions. The institutions must report a detailed explanation of the reasons for each student suspension or expulsion to the commission, and whether the action concerned a policy protected by the exemption.

Baylor said the schools have some concern about these disclosure and reporting requirements. For instance, they must also follow federal requirements to protect the privacy of educational records, which appears to be in tension with the proposal.

"In addition, there is a legitimate concern that these provisions single out religious schools and impose special obligations upon them," he said.

According to Baylor, the schools question whether the provisions are necessary given that the institutions are willing to discuss their religious commitments and expectations of students and staff.

In an Aug. 9 statement written in response to the previous version of the bill, a group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders defended the importance of the freedom of religious higher education.

"The future of a free America requires the full participation of religion in public life. Religious higher education cultivates both the mind and the soul," they said. They characterized the proposed restrictions as "stigmatizing and coercively punishing religious beliefs that disagree on contested matters related to human sexuality."

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Before its amendment, they said the bill would have severely restricted "the ability of religious education institutions to set expectations of belief and conduct that align with the institution's religious tenets."

Leaders from two Catholic colleges in California, St. Thomas Aquinas College and St. John Paul the Great University, signed the statement, as did Michael Wear, a former Obama campaign staffer who served in the White House's Office of Faith-based Initiatives.

Other critics of the unamended bill included Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles and Pentecostal leader Bishop Charles E. Blake, presiding bishop of the Church in God of Christ and pastor of West Angeles Church of God in Christ.

In an Aug. 2 statement, they said the bill would violate the religious freedom of faith-based colleges and put at risk higher education opportunities for "the tens of thousands of Californians they serve, including many who are black, Latino, Asian and low-income."

They said faith-based institutions have historically served as a refuge for blacks, Asians and other minority families. Many of the schools affected by the proposed legislation are taking part in federal initiatives to expand Latino access to higher education.

"Many of these students are children of immigrants and the first in their families to attend college," the two bishops said. They asked legislators to protect religious freedom and the freedom of poor and minority students "to attend the college or university of their choice, regardless of their religious beliefs."

Some commentators warned that the bill's earlier provisions could endanger the financial sustainability of religious higher education in California.

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