After intense opposition from the state’s religious schools, the author of a controversial bill that would have exposed private religious colleges in California to anti-discrimination lawsuits has agreed to remove a key provision.
Pushed by gay rights organizations, Senate Bill 1146 would have required religious schools receiving state money – including those that enroll students with Cal Grant scholarships – to comply with California’s anti-discrimination laws or risk private lawsuits.
In order to comply with the law, schools could have had to provide housing for same-sex married couples and allow students to use bathrooms based on their gender identity, something they said was a nonstarter because it violated religious beliefs.
The Association of Faith-Based Institutions, formed a little more than two weeks ago, had raised $350,000 from religious schools to fight the bill.
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But on Wednesday, Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, removed the provision that would have allowed students to sue if they felt they had been discriminated against. Now the bill requires the schools to publicly disclose their exempt status from non-discrimination laws so prospective students are aware of the rules. The amended bill also requires colleges to notify the state Student Aid Commission, which oversees Cal Grants, each time a student is expelled for violating a school’s moral code of conduct.
“With SB 1146, we shed light on the appalling discriminatory practices LGBT students face at private religious universities in California,” Lara said in a statement. “These provisions represent critical first steps in the ongoing efforts to protect students from discrimination for living their truths or loving openly.”
The schools have said they are not opposed to the new provisions of the bill, and religious groups cheered the decision.
“Without a doubt, the unmodified version would have jeopardized Christian institutions and egregiously penalized all students of faith, especially Latino and African-American individuals,” the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference said in a statement.
Cal Grants were a key issue in the debate over the bill. Students can use the money, which is awarded based on financial need and academic merit, at any state school and some independent schools. To attend a private four-year college, eligible students can get up to $9,084 from the state each year.
State law prevents discrimination based on sexual orientation and other factors in any educational program funded by the government, but the more than 30 religious colleges and universities in California are currently exempt. In its earlier form, SB 1146 would have removed that exemption, allowing schools who violate the law to be sued.
Because of that, critics argued that religious schools would have simply stopped accepting Cal Grant students to avoid costly lawsuits and that the bill would have restricted school choice for low-income students. Cal Grant recipients comprise up to 30 percent of the student body at some religious schools and the schools say the majority of them are first-generation and minority students.
“What about people that can’t write the check, and the state offers them assistance, but then they can’t pursue the education of their choice because they choose to go to a Christian university that practices biblical principles,” Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, who opposed the bill, said Monday.
But supporters of the bill said it was necessary to prevent discrimination against LGBT students on religious campuses.
Jo Michael, the legislative manager for Equality California, a group that supported the bill, said students are reluctant to come forward but his organization was aware of a number of instances of discrimination.
“It’s tough to get individual stories about issues like this, because it’s a particularly painful experience and one that can be difficult to share,” he said.
But Anthony Villarreal testified before the Assembly Judiciary Committee that he was expelled from William Jessup University, a private Christian school in Rocklin, because he was gay.
The school has disputed his claim and said he was expelled after being arrested for domestic violence, a violation of the school’s anti-violence policy.
Villarreal acknowledged the arrest but said there was no evidence of domestic violence and that no charges were pursued. He said that, as a result of the arrest, the school became aware that he was gay and living with his partner at the time in an off-campus apartment. He signed a disciplinary contract with the school that required him, among other things, to move out of his apartment and attend counseling.
After a protracted appeals process, he was given notice of expulsion Sept. 9, 2013. He said he considered suing the school but decided against it because the school was Title IX exempt.
Villarreal said that before his arrest and resulting disciplinary action, he had not experienced any discrimination at William Jessup. “If they don’t discriminate, then they shouldn’t fear any lawsuits,” he said.
Michael said that if a school wants to follow its own rules, it should do so without accepting public funds, including Cal Grant students.
“If a school wants to be able to go against California law, then the best way to do that is to make sure that they are operating as a totally private entity,” he said.
The schools say their campuses are already places of tolerance.
“We love our students, we try to treat them incredibly fairly,” Barry Corey, the president of Biola University, a private Christian university in La Mirada, said. “Of course we work within our religious tenets, (but) we have LGBT students, we don’t deny admission, we don’t expel them for being gay.”