Over the past two months, we’ve written lots and lots about the news coverage of a California bill that would strip several dozen private Christian colleges and universities of the ability to enforce the doctrinal and lifestyle covenants at the heart of their identities. As recently as Tuesday, an interfaith coalition including Muslim and Jewish leaders as well as evangelical heavyweights Rick Warren and Russell Moore had denounced Senate Bill 1146 as a death knell to religious freedom.
Not to be outdone, Archdiocese of Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez and Bishop Charles Blake, presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, turned to Fox News to claim that the bill would hurt minorities and the poor. Coming from the region’s two preeminent Hispanic and black leaders, the Gomez/Blake combo was a powerful one-two punch.
Unable to fight on all these fronts, Ricardo Lara, the state senator behind it all who is pictured above, backed down on Wednesday. For now. As the Los Angeles Times explains it:
Faced with intense opposition from religious colleges in California, a state Senator said Wednesday he has decided to amend a bill by dropping a provision that would have allowed gay and transgender students to more easily sue private universities for discrimination if they are disciplined for violating church teachings.
Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) is removing a provision of his bill that sought to take away the exemption of religious schools to anti-discrimination laws. Instead, he will press forward with the amended bill that would still require such schools to disclose if they have an exemption and report to the state when students are expelled for violating morality codes.
“The goal for me has always been to shed the light on the appalling and unacceptable discrimination against LGBT students at these private religious institutions throughout California,” Lara said.
The article goes on to describe the multi-faith opposition to Lara’s bill and the war chests being amassed to fight it.
Lara decided to bide his time for now and sally forth another day, with additional legislation. But he remained unbowed, as evidenced by his defiant tweet that was not picked up by any media I’m aware of.
Anyone familiar with the "Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)" document -- focusing on Catholic higher education -- from St. Pope John Paul II knows that the Vatican has a different take on that issue, to say the least. Journalists need to read up on that statement and Catholic debates about following its guidelines.
The Associated Press also ran a cogent piece about Lara’s retreat. It noted:
Most schools did not oppose the disclosure of any Title IX exemptions they held. They say it's no secret they live by a moral code.
Several questions remain unanswered. Do other private and state schools in California have to report every time they expel or discipline students and the reason for these actions? Lara is fixated on gay students being kicked out, but I’m willing to bet there are 10 times as many students getting kicked off of campuses these days for alcohol offenses, as well as the zillions of Title IX sexual harassment claims coming down the pike.
Lara never seemed to grasp –- or admit -– a central fault line in his battle; that no one was forcing anyone to attend these private religious universities.
Even at this late stage in the coverage, very few news organizations have noted this crucial fact. Private schools, on the left and right, are voluntary associations. Has anyone actually accused any of these schools of hiding their doctrinal covenants from potential students and their families? Most schools are very open about these documents, stressing that they are part of the integration of faith and higher education.
The Sacramento Bee, in its article on Lara’s withdrawal, omitted this point but did post a video interview with a gay man who said he was kicked out of one of the religious schools simply for being homosexual (as opposed to being disciplined for sex outside of marriage). It also published the school’s denial of the gay man’s accusations and brought up the all-important f word -- funding.
Cal Grants were a key issue in the debate over the bill. Students can use the money, which is awarded based on financial need and academic merit, at any state school and some independent schools. To attend a private four-year college, eligible students can get up to $9,084 from the state each year.
State law prevents discrimination based on sexual orientation and other factors in any educational program funded by the government, but the more than 30 religious colleges and universities in California are currently exempt. In its earlier form, SB 1146 would have removed that exemption, allowing schools who violate the law to be sued.
Because of that, critics argued that religious schools would have simply stopped accepting Cal Grant students to avoid costly lawsuits and that the bill would have restricted school choice for low-income students. Cal Grant recipients comprise up to 30 percent of the student body at some religious schools and the schools say the majority of them are first-generation and minority students.
This Christianity Today piece added that the senate committee considering the bill was also having second thoughts, as it knew there would be a huge legal battle with corresponding huge bills, which it was in no mood to incur.
So I’d give a “B” this time around to Wednesday’s media coverage of Lara’s decision. I’m still waiting for someone to do a profile of this man and why he feels compelled to punish religious schools for what’s obviously a personal grievance. Has anyone looked at his Facebook postings? He may have retreated for now, but he'll be back.
To stress the obvious, again -- journalists in the secular media are still failing to note that no one is forced to attend these private schools, where these doctrinal standards for behavior are in black and white for any prospective student to read.
That's a central point in this whole debate, yet no one is bringing it up. And I'm beginning to think they never will. Why is that?
FIRST IMAGE: "The Word" mural on the Biola University campus.