A bill that strips longstanding legal protections for religious colleges and universities is underway in the California legislature, and critics say it will imperil Catholic education unless changes are made.
“It’s a way of harassing and making it more difficult for those of us who are people of faith who want to live and express our ways in society,” said California Catholic Conference executive director Edward Dolejsi.
“We’re being painted into a corner and constricted,” he told CNA.
Dolejsi voiced concern about proposed legislation that could narrow the definition of a religious organization and compromise the ability of a school to express its identity in its curriculum, policies and faith.
The California legislature is considering S.B. 1146, which would limit religious exemptions for institutions of higher education. It would bar colleges that receive state funding from making employment, student housing, admission and other decisions on the basis of gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation.
It also bars discrimination on the basis of religion, and students who believe they are discriminated against may sue.
The legislation has passed the Senate and is headed to the Assembly Judiciary Committee, after passing out of the Higher Education Committee.
Quincy Masteller, general counsel of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., said the bill “in essence eliminates the religious exemption that has been in the California education code for many years.”
“In many ways it’s an existential threat to religious colleges that want to live according to the principles of their faith in their community,” he told CNA. The long history of religious institutions of higher education could be lost.
“That’s the stakes we’re looking at,” Masteller said.
Dolejsi said the bill’s consequences are still unclear, given federal rules and other religious liberty protections. The bill could also be amended.
For his part, Masteller thought passage of the bill in its current form was likely.
Observers of the bill are waiting to see what the final language will be after Tuesday’s hearing in the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
“Certainly no one wants anyone to be discriminated against, but at the same time those who infuse faith into their particular education curriculum and expect certain behaviors should have the right to operate that way,” Dolejsi commented.
The Catholic conference’s concerns include the bill’s redefinition of a faith-based organization. The conference opposes the bill unless there are amendments “to clarify it in a way that allows faith-based organizations and institutions to operate in a way consistent with who they are,” Dolejsi continued.
He suggested the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat from Southeast Los Angeles county, has a narrower view of faith-based institutions than what the Catholic community would find acceptable.
The senator has indicated that faith-based colleges and universities may have their policies, procedures, and statements of faith, but Dolejsi questioned whether he was willing to let the schools live by them. If someone felt these schools are discriminatory and took legal action, they would have to spend “a significant amount” of resources in court, according to Dolejsi.
“California has established strong protections for the LGBTQ community and private universities should not be able to use faith as an excuse to discriminate and avoid complying with state laws,” Lara said. “No university should have a license to discriminate.”
Backers of the Senate bill include Equality California, the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the Transgender Law Center.
Masteller said Thomas Aquinas College was guided by Catholic teaching, including the teaching that God created man male and female.
“There’s implications to that in how we live,” he said.
“The college has no discriminatory intent towards any person,” he explained. “What we do discriminate against is conduct or activity that violates our Catholic character.”
For instance, he said, the college would not allow a transgender male to live in the dorms of the opposite sex, nor would it allow a same-sex marriage ceremony in its Catholic chapel.
“We’re not going to sacrifice our Catholic character at all,” Masteller said.
“This is really a religious liberty issue. The exemption has been in the statute for so long. It’s nothing more than a reflection of the reality of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, that every citizen has the right to free exercise of religion,” he said.
“That means a religious community has a right to be able to live according to their religious principles and regulate their own community that way,” Masteller said.
The bill’s text exempts only religious-controlled educational institutions that prepare students to become ministers or theological teachers.
For institutions that seek a religious exemption provided Title IX of federal law, the bill would require disclosure of this exemption to current and prospective students, faculty and employees.
Dolejsi said the Catholic conference agreed with the bill’s provisions regarding full disclosure to students about the kind of school they have chosen and the school’s expectations.
“The rules should be applied equally, and these rules can extend to behaviors,” he said. “Whether you want to be gay or straight, you will behave appropriately in such a way that that particular faith group wants. If you violate that, don’t go to school there.”
“It’s a struggle for trying to deal with people compassionately and responsibly, and (with) political ideology that some people would have everyone genuflect to,” he said.
For his part, Masteller thought the provision could be intrusive, but said it only required disclosing what was already a matter of public record.
Lara, the Senate bill sponsor, had previously sponsored a resolution to remove a statue of St. Junipero Serra that represented California in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection.
Dr. Derry Connolly, president of John Paul the Great Catholic College in Escondido, Calif., said the bill is dangerous. He told the Cardinal Newman Society the bill is “a direct and blatant attack on the religious freedom of Catholic and Christian citizens of California.”
The legislature has considered other bills that would have affected Catholic education.
Assembly Bill 1888, failed to pass in committee. The legislation would have denied California state grants, known as CalGrants, to schools whose policies do not include gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation as special classes protected from discrimination.
Dolejsi said that bill’s sponsor “wanted basically to use CalGrants for lower income students as a bludgeon, if you will, to beat faith-based colleges into accepting behaviors that they didn’t want to accept.”
The state of California has already sided against Catholic colleges that sought to implement health care plans that did not cover elective abortions. The Obama administration on June 21 ruled that federal protections for objectors to abortion did not apply to churches and other organizations that had challenged a state rule requiring health plans to cover abortions.
The action means many California employers, including churches, have no access to abortion-free health plans.
Dolejsi objected that the federal review process took 22 months to determine a question of legal standing. He said it engaged in an unprecedented and “tortured interpretation” of a federal amendment intended to protect objectors to abortion.
He said the state rule will again be challenged on procedural grounds by groups like the Guadalupanas Sisters.