An unusually broad base of religious educational institutions and advocates of religious liberty have decried a California bill they say would infringe on First Amendment rights and discriminate against poor minority students who rely on state aid for college tuition.
The controversial legislation, SB- 1146, focuses on limiting exemptions that have traditionally protected the rights of colleges operated by faith groups to maintain policies and codes of conduct that are in keeping with the beliefs of the institutions.
A coalition of over 100 Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergy members, educators, and legal experts issued an open letter to California legislators on Tuesday, calling on them to abandon the bill, saying that it “threatens the integrity not only of religious institutions, but of any viewpoint wishing to exercise basic American freedoms.”
“Though it purports to eliminate discrimination, Senate Bill 1146 results in its own form of discrimination by stigmatizing and coercively punishing religious beliefs,” read the letter. “This legislation puts into principle that majoritarian beliefs are more deserving of legal protection, and that minority viewpoints are deserving of government harassment.”
Currently, secondary schools that are under the auspices of a religious group are protected by an exemption from Federal Title Nine that allows them to enforce policies in keeping with traditional morality. SB-1146 would limit this exemption to schools that train students to become members of the clergy. Institutions that do not conform would risk losing government funding and leave themselves open to discrimination suits.
The bill has already passed the State Senate and is presently working its way through committees in the Assembly. A final vote is expected before the end of August.
Dr. Irving Lebovics, director of Agudath Israel of America’s California division, has been closely involved in lobbying efforts regarding the legislation.
“Funding is less of a problem than the statement that this will make; they are trying to kill religious groups,” he said. “They are digging into religious institutions and there is no way to know where this will lead.”
While protection of religious freedom once had greater clout in the public sphere, Dr. Lebovics said that that argument has largely fallen on deaf ears in the present struggle.
“Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell, the left has been bent on trying to ensconce their rights in every way that they can. There is no point in making the religious liberty argument; they admit that they are doing this to show that these rights trump ours.”
Multiple sources who have been involved in the legislative process told Hamodia that at least one lobbying firm that had been employed by Christian colleges had been threatened by supporters of the legislation, saying that if they persisted in efforts to amend the bill, they would be blacklisted in the state of California. The company ultimately withdrew from the issue.
“This is nothing less than a war against religion. They [advocates of the bill and similar efforts] can’t feel secure until they wipe out religious groups,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, an adjunct professor at Loyola College of Law, who has followed the issue closely. “This is a half step away from the government looking into Lakewood or any other yeshivah and asking exactly what they teach and believe.”
He stressed the importance of religious groups of all faiths working together in advocacy efforts and remaining active in attempts to clearly explain their position.
One aspect of the bill that has elicited particular attention is that it could prevent religious colleges from accepting Cal Grants, a key state-level student aid program. The vast majority of recipients are black and Hispanic and the threat has moved many to label SB-1146 as discriminatory.
“SB-1146 represents politics at its worst,” says Montse Alvarado of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “Whatever the political spin, the reality is that SB-1146 directly harms California’s most vulnerable students — many of whom are the first in their families to go to college — and will cost California taxpayers hundreds of millions.”
The bill has been significantly amended since its introduction. An earlier version prohibited schools from requiring courses in religion or attendance at prayers. Currently, it allows schools to “enforce religious practices” so long as they are applied in the same way to all students. Amendments are still being made and the text seems far from final.
The letter released Tuesday called the bill an attempt to quash “the idea that conscience and religious conviction come before the demands of the state.”
“Some of us disagree with the … ethics of Orthodox Jews, Christians, and Muslims giving rise to this legislation, but we are unified in our resistance to the government setting up its own system of orthodoxy,” it says.