Since February, California lawmakers have been considering a bill that would protect LGBT college students from discrimination by religious universities. On Tuesday, a national coalition of anti-LGBT conservatives, led by one of the largest denominations in the country, issued a joint letter opposing that legislation on the grounds that it infringes on religious liberty.
Senate Bill 1146 is a response to the many religious universities that have sought exemptions to Title IX, the federal law that protects against discrimination on the basis of sex in education. In recent years, the Department of Education has increasingly suggested that Title IX protects transgender students, officially issuing guidance to that effect in May. Likewise, a federal judge in California ruled in December that the law also likely protects against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But Title IX allows universities to obtain a waiver if they have religious beliefs about sex, and there has been a surge in requests — such that the organization Campus Pride now maintains a “Shame List” of the dozens of schools who want to discriminate against LGBT students.
California legislators can’t change federal law, but they can still regulate universities under state law, which is what SB 1146 aims to do. In its current version, it would require three things of religious institutions:
First, if a California university takes a Title IX exemption, it would have to publicly disclose to students, faculty, and staff its basis for doing so, including in marketing materials to prospective students and orientation programs for incoming students.
Secondly, the universities would also have to submit that information to the state’s Student Aid Commission, which will maintain a public list of those institutions and the reasons they took those exemptions.
Lastly, the law simply states that those institutions are not exempt from California’s state nondiscrimination law, which requires that any institution that receives state funding provide services equally to all people, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill includes carveouts for sex-segregated housing, single-sex institutions, and ministerial training programs, but otherwise requires any school receiving state funding to provide LGBT students with equal access to that education.
In short, SB 1146 would simply tell California universities that if they want to discriminate against LGBT students, they can, but they can’t be secretive about it and they should not expect to receive state funding — including state loans and grants that help students pay tuition there — if they do.
On Tuesday, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) released a letter opposing SB 1146. It claims that the bill would unfairly punish the “low-income students” and “racial minorities” who depend on state grant programs by not allowing them to attend those religious universities. The bill threatens not only religious liberty, its signatories claim, but “the protection of American society and American democracy.”
The letter’s signers include a few non-Christians, but they otherwise largely consist of Baptist leaders, Christian college presidents, and a who’s who of prominent anti-LGBT conservatives, including:
- Rick Warren (Saddleback Church)
- Robert George (the Princeton University professor who helped found the National Organization for Marriage, among other anti-LGBT activities)
- Jim Daly (Focus on the Family)
- Alan Sears (Alliance Defending Freedom)
- Ryan T. Anderson (The Heritage Foundation)
- Erick Erickson (The Resurgent)
- Matthew Franck (The Witherspoon Institute)
- David French (National Review)
- Jonathan Keller (California Family Council)
- Ed Whelan (Ethics and Public Policy Center)
The list also includes three officials from Biola University, which has already been leading the charge against SB 1146. In fact, the evangelical institution operates its own “Oppose SB 1146” campaign, arguing that the bill would make schools like Biola “vulnerable to anti-discrimination lawsuits and unprecedented government policing.” In the campaign’s FAQs, Biola rejects the claim that they are motivated by discrimination, instead claiming that “faith-based institutions are fighting to preserve sacred teachings and practices that have been part of higher education settings for centuries.”
One school notably absent from the letter, however, is Pepperdine University, which is based in Malibu and affiliated with the Churches of Christ. Pepperdine has a storied reputation for being an unwelcoming place for LGBT students; in fact, it was a suit accusing Pepperdine of anti-gay discrimination that led to the preliminary finding recognizing that discrimination as a violation of Title IX. The school has had a Title IX exemption since 1985, but earlier this year — when dozens of other schools were newly filing for exemptions — Pepperdine actually withdrew from that exemption, making it perhaps the first university ever to do so. School officials recently explained that they believe the exemption no longer aligns with the institution’s values, but did not provide any further specifics behind the decision.
Pepperdine seems to be a clear exception to the rule. The other institutions argue that they must be able to continue discriminating against LGBT students, because “the future of a free America requires the full participation of religion in public life.”