(RNS) A bill wending its way through the California Legislature would limit religious colleges’ ability to claim an exemption from federal Title IX regulations that bar discrimination against LGBT students and faculty.
Only schools that prepare students for pastoral ministry would be allowed the religious exemption under California Senate Bill 1146 — which passed the state Senate in May and is scheduled for a hearing in the state Assembly on Thursday (June 30).
In other religious schools that receive Title IX money, students who believe they have faced discrimination on the basis of their sexual identity would have the right to sue the school.
The bill would also require religious schools to inform prospective students if the schools have a Title IX religious exemption.
Title IX, a 1972 law, forbids colleges that receive federal money from engaging in sexual discrimination. While Title IX does not expressly deal with sexual orientation, courts have upheld its use to protect LGBT students from harassment, bullying and discrimination in schools that receive Title IX money.
While the law is seen by some as an attempt to get California religious schools to comply with the state laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, it could have national implications. Human Rights Watch, which calls the Title IX religious exemption “a license to discriminate,” reports there are 56 schools nationwide that have requested such exemptions, including Wheaton College, Liberty University and George Fox University.
Forty-two California colleges qualify for Title IX religious exemptions, according to the National Center for Law & Policy, a California-based Christian legal defense group. At least seven have applied, including Biola University, Simpson University and William Jessup University.
The bill is proving divisive. Some see it as a long-overdue advance in protecting LGBT students, while others view it as an infringement on the religious freedom of schools that adhere to forms of Christianity that reject homosexuality as sinful.
“This threatens religious institutions ability to require that students attend daily or weekly chapel services, keep bathrooms and dormitories distinct according to sex, require students to complete theology classes, teach religious ideas in regular coursework, hold corporate prayer at events such as graduation, and so on,” Holly Scheer wrote in The Federalist, a web-based magazine. “In other words, it threatens every practice that makes religious institutions distinct from secular institutions.”
But state and local LGBT rights advocates support the bill.
“Prospective students have a right to know if a university they are considering attending discriminates against LGBT people,” said Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California. “This bill would let any school seeking to skirt federal anti-discrimination protections know that its policies would be public, and that anyone discriminated against would have legal recourse.”
State Sen. John Moorlach, a Republican whose district encompasses a swath of Southern California coastline, voted against the bill in the Senate.
The bill “does not safeguard against discrimination, but rather is a form of discrimination against religious liberty itself,” he said in a statement to constituents. “Restricting private institutions from adhering to its religious beliefs is a violation of their First Amendment rights and an act itself of intolerance.”