California State Senator Ricardo Lara proposed a bill earlier this summer that would threaten the religious liberty of all religious schools in the state that are not seminaries. It would require that such schools not “discriminate” against LGBT students or lose federal funding. As Biola University warned, the bill “functionally eliminates the religious liberty of all California faith-based colleges and universities who integrate spiritual life with the entire campus educational experience.”
Religious schools across the state flooded the senate committee with complaints. Christianity Today notes that the bill could have barred standards of belief and conduct for faculty and could have prevented colleges from giving preferential admission to students in its denomination or faith.
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission called the legislation “its own form of discrimination by stigmatizing and coercively punishing religious beliefs.” The National Association of Evangelicals stated that protecting one minority community does not require the alienation of others. The senate committee noted that “the probability of litigation against the state appears fairly high.”
Yesterday, Sen. Lara announced that he was amending his controversial bill to keep religious exemptions in place. His bill would still require schools to “disclose if they have an exemption and report to the state when students are expelled for violating morality codes.” But it does not threaten federal funding for religious schools or require them to amend their morality standards.
This is good news. But there’s bad news on the religious liberty front as well.
The Big 12 Conference is considering adding Brigham Young University. The Mormon school expressly “welcomes as full members of the university all whose behavior meets university standards,” including those with same-gender sexual attraction.
However, the University states that “homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code. Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.” Now as many as twenty-five groups are urging the Big 12 not to admit BYU because of its LGBT policy.
The defeat of the California bill shows that Christians working and praying together can still make a difference in our culture. It’s always too soon to give up on God.
However, the BYU controversy shows that religious liberty threats are real and are likely to escalate in coming years. It’s not hard to envision a day when any church, school, or religious institution that upholds biblical sexuality and marriage will face threats to its tax-exemption and funding. Defending what Scripture says on sexuality and marriage could be considered “hate speech.” Our supposedly tolerant society is becoming less tolerant all the time.
When Peter and John were ordered to stop preaching the gospel, they declared to the authorities: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19–20). The same Spirit who empowered their witness is ready to empower ours.