The California State Capitol from 2006. A gay protection bill headed for the state legislature's floor for consideration is seen by some as targeting religious schools. Photo/Courtesy of David Monniaux, Wikimedia Commons

Bill aimed to protect #LGBT students' rights said to target religious colleges

By  Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service
  • August 1, 2016

WASHINGTON – A small independent Catholic college in Escondido, California, has joined the opponents of a state law aimed at banning discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students by depriving colleges of state and federal student-aid funds.

The president of John Paul the Great University, which has an enrollment of 350, said the bill would prevent some students from enrolling and the college from having policies in line with Catholic teaching, and could force Catholic colleges to host same-sex weddings in campus chapels.

Derry Connolly said his school doesn't discriminate against gay or transgender students and has had no discrimination complaints since it was founded in 2003. The matter of same-sex weddings "seems to be the biggest concern," he said in an interview with Catholic News Service.

The Catholic Church opposes same-sex marriage. It upholds marriage between one man and one woman and teaches that sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin. The church also teaches that homosexuals must be "accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided."

The measure, known as S.B. 1146, has passed the state Senate Judiciary Committee and is expected to come before the entire Legislature in August. It is intended to block state financial assistance, known as Cal Grants, and federal aid in the form Pell Grants to colleges and universities the state says are discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

Faith-based colleges nationwide, many represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom law firm, consider such laws an assault on religious liberty, since the law is aimed only at religious higher-education institutions.

The draft of the bill notes that religious schools have increasingly requested waivers to Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds.

One section of S.B. 1146 specifically restricts the scope of the existing state religious exemption in the state's education code.

John Paul the Great University received an exemption in 2015. Most on the exemption list published by the U.S. Department of Education are small institutions, with the notable exception of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, which has an enrollment of more than 81,000.

The California bill maintains, according to the text of the draft law, "Universities that receive an exemption essentially have a license to discriminate and students and staff have no recourse."

The Title IX exemption, under the bill, would be allowed only for seminaries "preparing students to become ministers of the religion or to enter upon some other vocation of the religion."

Under current law, an educational institution "controlled by a religious organization" is allowed an exemption if an application of Title IX "would not be consistent with the religious tenets of that organization."

"My preference is that the bill would go completely away," said Connolly, although he expects that it will be passed and his school will have to join in litigation against it. Taking the bill to court "is not anything anyone would like to have hanging over their heads."

"No religious person intends to discriminate" said John Jackson, president of William Jessup University, an independent Christian institution in Rocklin, California. His school has an enrollment of about 1,200.

Jackson called the bill "a coercive attempt by the state of California to disassociate religious institutions from California society."

Another complaint from the affected schools is that the Department of Education has published a list online of educational institutions that have either received the Title IX exemption or have applications pending.

That previous anonymity is another reason for S.B. 1146, according to the draft: "Students and staff across the country have reported finding out about the exemption only after being expelled from school or fired from their job."

The legislation would require schools with the Title IX exemption to tell students and staff, and would allow anyone encountering discrimination at that school "to pursue a remedy through a civil action."

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