After months of controversy that had a number of California’s religious leaders speaking out, California State Senator Ricardo Lara has amended his proposed legislation targeting religious higher education institutions. As originally crafted, SB-1146, “The Equity in Higher Education Act,” would have effectively erased the Title IX anti-discrimination exemption for all religious schools that receive any state funds except those that are explicitly seminaries.
Senator Lara, a Democrat who represents a portion of southern Los Angeles County, had intended the legislation as a means of protecting L.G.B.T. students from discrimination, citing cases in which L.G.B.T. students believed that they had been expelled from religious institutions on the basis of their sexual identity. He also pointed to experiences of transgender students being denied gender-appropriate housing and some even being expelled.
In April, Lara said :
All students deserve to feel safe in institutions of higher education, regardless of whether they are public or private. 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. No university should have a license to discriminate.
In an August press release, Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez and Charles E. Blake of the Church of God in Christ Bishop praised the “salutary purpose” of the legislation but argued it went far beyond its goal. Indeed, Gomez, Blake and many others noted that the real burden of the legislation would likely fall on low-income and minority students, as religious schools would likely stop accepting state-funded financial aid as a result.
Gomez and Blake also argued that protecting L.G.B.T. students could be done much more easily, by having institutions clearly lay out their expectations relative to sexual and gender identity ahead of time. And in its new version that is most of what the act will demand: clear and regular disclosure both in written materials and on campus that an institution has a Title IX exemption. The amended act also requires a quarterly report from religious institutions detailing any and all expulsions and whether those students received Cal Grants.
Gomez and Blake’s press release is worth reading for the overall respect and thoughtfulness of its arguments. It lacks the histrionics that sometimes mar religious liberty conversations, clearly and simply laying out the problems and also giving Lara credit for what is a legitimate underlying concern.
And yet at the same time an area of concern remains. A school clearly identifying itself as exempt from Title IX may help prospective students make better decisions related to their own needs and desires. But it does nothing to protect the rights of L.G.B.T. students, faculty or staff who are at these schools, or those who will choose to come, or those who will discover their sexual or gender identity while in college, a not uncommon phenomenon even today.
Nor does it tell such students what rights or protections they can expect to have in such an institution or what sort of treatment they can reasonably expect. Can a student be expelled based solely on who they are in a relationship with or their choice of gender identity? In a school oriented around a loving, welcoming God, one would hope not.
One would hope that schools would be up front and clear one way or another. Keeping things ambiguous may serve them from a public relations perspective; but for students, that ambiguity creates anxiety and fear.
And arguing, as Gomez and Blake do at the end of their statement, that “no one is compelled to attend a private religious college or university,” does not improve that situation. Indeed, if anything it offers yet another mixed signal about whether L.G.B.T. students should truly believe they are welcome in California’s Christian schools.