Following the outcry from advocates of religious liberty, a California state senator has decided to amend a controversial piece of legislation that critics said would have infringed on First Amendment rights. The author has publicly stated that he will remove more contentious aspects of the bill, leaving only a requirement for greater disclosure by religious colleges, which supporters said would allow for greater transparency.
Opponents of the bill welcomed the move.
“This bill was a solution in search of a problem,” Lee Wilhite, vice president of communications and marketing for Biola University, a Christian college based in Los Angeles, told Hamodia. “We’re fine with disclosing what our mission is and how we run our institution. It’s not that different from what we do already. The problem was when the bill went from being about that to overreaching into religious freedoms and telling us how we should carry out our religious mission.”
Currently, secondary schools that are under the auspices of a religious group are protected by a federal exemption that allows them to enforce policies in keeping with traditional morality. The bill, SB-1146, previously attempted to limit this exemption to schools that train students to become members of the clergy. Institutions that did not conform would have risked losing government funding and leave themselves open to discrimination suits.
Earlier this week, a coalition of 145 Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergy members, educators and legal experts issued an open letter to California legislators, 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.”
One aspect of the bill that has elicited particular attention was its potential effect on the ability of religious colleges to accept 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.
On Wednesday, the bill’s author, Sen. Ricardo Lara announced changes, citing “unintended consequences” that the legislation could have caused in its prior form.
Sen. Lara added that supporters plan to study the issue further and peruse further options in the coming year.
At present, the bill requires schools claiming religious exemptions publicly disclose that they do so. Additionally, colleges will be required to report any incidents of students being expelled for violation of morality codes to the state agency that manages tuition grants. In light of the announcement, most institutions that had been fighting the proposal have dropped their objections, pending review of the final text.
Dr. Irving Lebovics, director of Agudath Israel of America’s California division, who has been closely involved in lobbying efforts regarding the legislation welcomed the change, but warned that the relief was likely to be temporary.
“Some organizations let [Sen. Lara] know that the bill was not ready for the prime time in its present form, but there is a real concern that it’s coming back,” he said.
In the meantime, Dr. Lebovics emphasized that relationships that the Agudah’s advocacy team had forged with some key legislators, he hoped, would give them entree to future negotiations and help to protect religious exercise in future bills.
“They’re trying to make a statement and tip the scales in their direction and against religious organizations. We have to be clear that anything that tampers with our federal exemption is problematic and that our rights deserve to be protected as much as anyone else’s.”
Mr. Wilhite said that even if legislation similar to the original draft would be re-introduced, the respite will give religious institutions time to prepare for future challenges. In the midst of opposition to SB-1146, a group of religious colleges formed a statewide association of faith-based educational institutions. He said that such efforts are likely to be needed throughout the country.
“This was a big wake-up call for us,” said Mr. Wilhite. “We saw that most legislators understand us through the story that the media tells, and that we didn’t have deep relationships with them. Our representatives need to be invited to our campuses and given a greater appreciation for the work we are doing. They deserve to be given a better understanding of who we really are.”