California’s Religious Colleges Get ‘Miracle’ Win for Religious Liberty

For Catholic and Christian colleges, the battle for religious freedom may depend on showing legislators how they serve vulnerable populations.

The Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity on the campus of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif.
The Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity on the campus of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif. (photo:

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — For three days in August, the entire community of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., prayed for St. Michael the Archangel to protect their religious liberty from new state legislation that seemed like a done deal.

S.B. 1146, sponsored by state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, aimed to eliminate existing protections for religious colleges and universities that allow them to carry out their educational mission in line with their religious teachings on marriage and sexuality. Lara argued that the bill closed a “loophole” that allows religious-based institutions of higher learning to discriminate against homosexual and transgender students, thanks to existing religious exemptions from state and federal nondiscrimination statutes. 

The legislation passed the senate and was just waiting to sail through the assembly, which is controlled by a supermajority of Democratic lawmakers.

But on Aug. 11, Thomas Aquinas College and California’s other Christian and Catholic colleges and universities, received their miracle: Lara agreed to strike the controversial provision from his bill.

For the past few months, Christian and Catholic institutions of higher education and their allies argued that Lara’s bill would lead to the loss of Cal Grants and disproportionately harm low-income students, particularly those from Latino and African-American households, who chose to attend religious schools.

“I believe it was a miracle, actually,” said Dean Broyles, president and chief counsel for the National Center for Law and Policy. While he still has concerns with the legislation, “compared to what the bill cut out, it’s a vast improvement.”

Broyles told the Register that while the colleges and universities’ religious liberty was on the line, he speculated that, for many in the legislature, what hit home was the realization that the legislation would harm low-income black and Latino students.

Previous language in Lara’s bill had removed religious educational institutions’ automatic exemption from the state’s nondiscrimination statute, the Equity in Higher Education Act, which includes gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation among its protected classes. The language — now struck from the current version of the bill — would have allowed private lawsuits against religious colleges and universities that did not allow access to restrooms and housing consistent with a person’s gender identity (as opposed to their biological sex), or if they provided married student housing while excluding same-sex couples with a marriage license.

In its previous form, the bill would have made it impossible for most Christian and Catholic colleges and universities to receive Cal Grant funds, because they could not certify (as part of the grant process) that they were in full compliance with the state’s nondiscrimination statutes. In turn, thousands of low-income students would have lost the financial means to continue their educations at those universities.


Serving Low-Income Households

In a memo to the assembly, Broyles outlined that more than 100,000 students attend 42 religious colleges and universities belonging to Muslim, Jewish, Catholic and various Christian denominations. Approximately 25% of their students are from low-income households, most of which are black and Latino, and rely on Cal Grant funding to achieve their educational dreams. As initially worded, the bill would not only rob students of their choice of higher learning, but possibly force them to seek admission in the state-university system, adding approximately $118 million in additional costs.

“Many colleges would not compromise to survive,” Broyles said.

According to the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, 34 members would be affected by the bill, and 31 of these colleges and universities both fall under the religious exemption and participate in the Cal Grant program.

In June, when the association reported to its members that it was at an impasse with Lara in getting the bill amended, the religious colleges and universities, with their allies, went into full gear, rallying support for retaining the religious exemption.

Quincy Masteller, general counsel for Thomas Aquinas College, said there was a barrage of radio commercials, op-eds and mailings to heavily Latino districts, including more than 20 districts headed by Latino assemblymen.

Masteller speculated that enough assemblymen told Lara that they could not support the bill as it stood.

“There’s no reason why he wouldn’t have proceeded if he had the votes,” Masteller said.

However, Lara did add another provision to the bill that requires religious colleges and universities to disclose quarterly to the Student Aid Commission a “detailed explanation” of every student suspension or expulsion, the policy that was violated and how that policy “is authorized under the exemption.” It also would require them to disclose whether that student had a Cal Grant.

Masteller said the new provision would violate students’ privacy and contended that forcing them to furnish that information to the state would be “illegal under federal privacy laws.” It appears to Masteller that Lara wants to use this new provision to collect data that he believes would justify his belief that Catholic and Christian colleges and universities are systematically discriminating against “LGBT students.”

The assembly officially amended the bill on Aug. 15. A floor vote in the assembly is expected before the end of the month.


Catholic Contribution

The California Catholic Conference played a supporting role in the effort by the religious universities and colleges to amend S.B. 1146. The conference has held the position that the bill should be “opposed unless amended” on the basis that religious colleges and universities should not waive their religious liberty or be coerced, and the bill is detrimental to the poor.

The bill posed a danger to all Catholic colleges and universities in California. For one thing, universities such as University of San Diego and Loyola Marymount would have been in violation for forbidding same-sex couples from using their chapel for weddings.

Ned Dolejsi, the conference’s executive director, said the conference is taking a “wait and see” approach and will let the religious colleges and universities decide whether it is now acceptable before changing their positions. Dolejsi said the conference views the new “disclosure” requirements as disrespectful to the institutions.

“The disclosure provisions, in my opinion, go much beyond what he proposed earlier, which I thought was respectful and responsible,” Dolejsi said.

However, he noted that Lara is still in negotiations with the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and they may come to an arrangement that the various parties find acceptable.


A Breathing Space

Kevin Mannoia, professor of ministry and chaplain at Azusa Pacific University, affirmed that the contribution of the Catholic Church in uniting with other churches to defend the religious liberty of their colleges and universities is huge. He pointed out that having Archbishop Gomez, as the Latino leader of the largest Catholic archdiocese in California, and Bishop Charles Blake, the leader of the largest African-American Christian church in California, co-write an op-ed that ran on, and the archdiocese’s Angelus News, significantly underscored “the seriousness of the legislation” and the harm that the bill posed to African-American and Latino students by hurting the religious institutions they chose to attend.

“We question why lawmakers would want to make it harder for Latinos and other minorities to receive an education by potentially denying their schools the opportunity to redeem Cal Grants,” Archbishop Gomez and Bishop Blake wrote. “This is not fair to those students, and it contradicts the state’s noble tradition of seeking to expand educational and economic opportunities for all Californians. … And all of this is unnecessary to achieve the goals of protecting the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender students.”

Mannoia added that it also validated to many pastors that they were right to oppose the bill.

Still, he cautioned against reading the removal of the objectionable language as a “victory.” Instead, he viewed it as a “hiatus,” a breathing space that provides Christian colleges and universities an opportunity to be proactive and tell their stories.  

Mannoia said he would like to propose to the presidents of California’s Christian colleges and universities that they invite Lara and the other senators and assemblymen to their campuses, so lawmakers can see firsthand the students they serve and the good work they do. Doing so can help build relationships and banish the misconception in some lawmakers’ minds that religious colleges and universities do not care about their “LGBT students.”

“Behind these issues, we have got to remember those are real people,” Mannoia said.

He said it was essential that the colleges and universities not get caught in the “binary, antagonistic relationships” that seem to define political discourse today. He pointed out that since lawmakers in the senate viewed S.B. 1146 as a simple left-right issue, it passed quickly. Only in the assembly, when the colleges and universities made the human case that the bill would hurt low-income African-American and Latino students that attend their schools, did lawmakers wake up and realize that there was more to the issue beyond party-line votes.

Said Mannoia, “We have just got to tell our story of what we do on our campuses.”  

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.