As was demonstrated by California Senate Bill 1146, higher education is a present, and, certainly, future battleground over the place of religion in American public life. The California ballot measure would have restricted the availability of state funding for economically disadvantaged and minority students who chose to attend private, religiously affiliated schools. While purporting to eliminate religious discrimination, the law would have introduced new discrimination by coercively punishing religious beliefs on matters related to human sexuality. The bill would have effectively prevented religious institutions from setting expectations of belief and conduct that align with the institution’s religious beliefs. While the California ballot measure was amended for 2016, dropping the most restrictive language, the sponsoring senator has stated that he intends to bring the same issue again next year.
In what ways do institutions of higher education face specific challenges to religious freedoms? What are the contributions of religious institutions of higher learning to both specific faith communities and American society at large? Why is protecting religious freedom in higher education of significant importance?
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Among the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision has been the push by groups supporting that decision for new law and regulation to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals. A prime arena for this has been higher education, where there has been increased scrutiny regarding where federal funding—particularly aid to students—is involved.
This year California state lawmakers introduced a bill using the “stick” of a college or its students losing state aid to force particular definitions of acceptable religious belief and tolerated student behaviors on colleges with acknowledged religious exemptions from some state and federal government regulation. Not all supporters of the legislation sought primarily to damage religious higher education, although that would have been its effect. Some were concerned about alleged discrimination against LGBT students and had made assumptions, based on a few highly ambiguous reports, about policies and practices on Christian college campuses. Their stated intent was to address these reports, despite the fact that California already has strong legal protections for LGBT persons which apply to and have been followed by all California colleges and universities, including faith-based institutions.
Fortunately, California’s colleges had time to correct a false narrative—that religious colleges use their faith foundation as a loophole to discriminate against some students—with the accurate story that faith is the foundation for full and caring love of all students. With hard work, many of the coercive aspects of this unnecessary legislation were removed.
A major lesson from California is that legislators may have little familiarity with what Christian colleges actually believe, how they operate, and how they contribute to their communities and the lives of their students. Absent this familiarity, negative stereotypes take hold. The faith commitment of Christian colleges dignifies each student because they are created in the image of God. It also leads colleges to ask each student, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, to abide by conduct standards in keeping with what Scripture shows God intends. Religious colleges seek to preserve the freedom to wrestle with these matters in a faith-centered context without the government forcing an end to the conversation or advancing only one side of the argument. Christian colleges and universities desire to be communities with zero tolerance for abuse or bullying of any student for any reason, and have solid records of such care while also recognizing there is always room for improvement.
Protecting Educational Diversity
American higher education includes single-sex colleges, historically black colleges, conservative religious colleges and free-market colleges, among others, and this diversity contributes to the collective good of our society. Religious colleges vary among themselves as well, which provides students with a variety of choices to develop and integrate their faith in preparation for work and service in every corner of the world.
The political challenge in California strengthened current organizations and forged new alliances. California’s religious colleges were ably supported by the independent college association. The challenge also prompted Christian colleges to reach out to new partners, building new but lasting bridges among Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim colleges and universities who share the same free exercise concerns. A broader range of allies also came together, as politicians of both parties, academics who claim no faith, African-American churches and their leaders, Hispanic organizations, the Archbishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles and several gay leaders also supported religious freedom.
Enriching the Public Square
A common premise in today’s polarized politics is an inevitable zero-sum clash between LGBT and institutional religious rights—that one side must win and one side must lose. Whereas there are fundamental conflicting beliefs at play, in legislative discussion it is possible to respect both the rights of individuals and the integrity of religious colleges and universities.
Religious freedom is essential. Secure and robust freedom of religious belief and practice allows for meaningful and constructive critique of society and its institutions. Such principled religious pluralism allows for critique that is essential for government and society to be open to change and improvement. If religious freedom that allows multiple traditions and practices to persist is not secure, other political and social freedoms are more likely to deteriorate, as the government and the temporary holders of its power have no real rival authority.
California’s legislative process enabled Christian educators and allies to work with receptive members across the political spectrum to separate fact from fiction and obtain major changes to the bill. In this process, several longstanding truths were reinforced:
The legislative process gives time for grievances to arise and time to organize a coalition, make arguments, raise awareness and change minds. Almost without exception, legislators want to identify and solve real problems that face their constituents, and they are responsive to constituent input. Slow, imperfect and halting as it may be, the process has a good purpose.
Listening helps. Representatives of Christian higher education need to listen to legislators initially opposed or indifferent to our institutions who may have legitimate questions and gaps in their knowledge of current policies and practices. Listening well leads to effective responses.
Communicate early and continually. It is tempting to refuse or cut off conversations with opposing legislators and their allies. That is almost always a mistake. In the end, it was meetings with the state senator who authored this bill that led to a more favorable outcome than seemed likely at times.
As experience in California has shown, arguing solely on religious freedom grounds is not sufficient in many political contexts. Autonomy for religious institutions is no longer a self-evident good, nor are arguments for sexual modesty and behavioral boundaries. To argue only from religious freedom, pitted against others’ understanding of LGBT issues as a civil right, leads to impasse. In the legislative arena, we need to add constructive conversations such as finding common ground about how to treat students justly within our faith commitments and articulating how religious universities add to diversity and excellence within higher education as well as enhanced freedom and choice for us all.
Douglas L. Koopman is Special Advisor for Strategic Communication & Public Affairs at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He is a tenured Professor of Political Science at Calvin College, focusing on American political institutions and religion and politics in America. Koopman has a Ph.D. in American Government from the Catholic University of America.
**All views and opinions presented in this essay are solely those of the author and publication on Cornerstone does not represent an endorsement or agreement from the Religious Freedom Institute or its leadership.**