Advancing Bill Targets Religious Schools

shocked-kid-apCalifornia legislators could soon wipe out the social and cultural exemptions afforded to state religious schools that they depend upon for their identity.

Senate Bill 1146, now moving through committee in the Assembly, “aims to include all colleges and universities receiving state financial assistance together with students receiving state financial aid under the authority of the Equity in Higher Education Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex,” as Christianity Today noted. “The bill, authored by state Senator Ricardo Lara, was passed by the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee with an 8-2 vote and is now with the Committee on the Judiciary.”

Instant controversy

Intentionally or not, Lara poked a hornet’s nest. “The bill has created a storm of controversy in the Legislature,” the Los Angeles Times observed. “It was approved by a sharply divided state Senate last month,” with critics charging that its language was overbroad, vague and out of sync with the First Amendment’s protections on freedom of association and religious practice. “The bill would limit conscience protections to only those schools that prepare students for ministry, teach theology or prepare students for other pastoral careers,” charged Matt Cover at OpportunityLives. “If a school tried to maintain its religious identity, it could be faced with crippling lawsuits, forcing schools to make the choice between shutting down or eliminating their religious nature, depriving their students the opportunity of an education that incorporates their religious views alongside academic learning.”

Lara, D-Bell Gardens, seemed somewhat taken aback by the firestorm. The state senator “said it is not his intent to interfere with what is taught in the classroom or requirements that students attend chapel twice a week, and that he is willing to consider changes in his bill to address some concerns,” according to the Times, although he added “he is adamant that religious universities should be subject to some of the anti-discrimination laws that apply to public colleges.”

Stark choices

In-state religious leaders responded with furor — partly because of how close to the state the bill would draw faith-based schools, and partly because of how far away they would be pushed if they tried not to comply. “The bill effectively eliminates the religious exemption under current law that allows Christian colleges and universities to operate in accordance with their beliefs, including the freedom to hire only Christian faculty and staff,” wrote Kurt Krueger, president of Concordia University Irvine. “If passed without amendments, the new law would also very likely disqualify students attending California Christian colleges and universities from eligibility for Cal Grants, a key state-level student aid program.”

Lara’s bill and its implications also quickly resonated nationwide. Billy Graham Evangelistic Association president Rev. Franklin Graham tore into the proposal on Facebook, portraying it as the spear tip of a nationwide “anti-Christian movement.”

“Now the California state Legislature wants to force Christian Universities like Biola University to conform to secular standards,” he wrote. “In effect, we would no longer have Christian universities in this state — and unfortunately this secularism is like an evil plague that spreads.”

Following federal cues

Biola has become something of a symbol of the legal front in the culture war around faith and sexual politics. “[I]n response to signals from the federal government that transgender K-12 students should be protected under anti-discrimination laws,” EdSource recalled, “Biola decided to apply for a religious exemption that would give the university the right to expel transgender students and refuse to admit, house or accommodate them, without jeopardizing federal funding.” Under current law, California affords “a blanket exemption to the anti-discrimination provisions of the Equity in Higher Education Act to all colleges that are ‘controlled by a religious organization,’” as the site added. SB1146 would take away that exemption, prohibiting any form of restriction on “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in admissions, housing and campus activities.”

This piece was originally published by

America: Losing Our Religion

cross“Losing My Religion” is not just a song by R.E.M. It’s also a fact of American life.

That’s the message of a survey of more than 35,000 Americans just released by the Pew Research Center. The key finding: the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation is growing, from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014. That’s nearly a quarter of the adult population. Meanwhile, the number of Christians in the U.S. is down 8 percent.

Pew estimates that the U.S. now counts about 56 million unaffiliated adults. The unchurched are larger than the number of Catholics and mainline Protestants and nearly equal to the number of evangelicals.

And it’s having a political impact. Look at the backlash last month to the “religious freedom” law passed in Indiana that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples on religious grounds. The huge wave of criticism shocked conservatives who are used to seeing “religious freedom” trump every argument. This time, conservatives were forced to back down.

The rise of the unchurched is partly due to the growing numbers of millennials. Millennials (Americans born after 1980) are the least churched generation — 35 percent are unaffiliated. But the turning away from religion is not confined to them. The Pew survey shows Christians declining and the unchurched increasing in every age group. Even seniors.

The growing number of unchurched matters politically because religiosity is a key marker of political affiliation. Not religion. Religiosity.

Today, if you can ask a voter only one question to identify his or her political leanings (besides “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?”), the best question would be “How often do you go to church?”

Pew reports that, among Americans with no religious affiliation, Democrats and Democratic-leaners outnumber Republicans and Republican-leaners 61 to 25 percent.

In 1992, I held a post as visiting professor of American politics at a leading Jesuit university. One of the perquisites of that position was an invitation to tea with the Cardinal. After we exchanged pleasantries, the Cardinal asked, “Is there anything happening in American politics that I should be aware of?”

“As a matter of fact, your eminence, there is,” I answered. “Since 1980, religious Americans of all faiths — fundamentalist Protestants, observant Catholics, even Orthodox Jews — have been moving toward the Republican Party. At the same time, irreligious Americans have found a home in the Democratic Party.

“This is something new,” I said. Then I went a fateful step further, adding, “I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of a religious party in this country.”

The Cardinal pounced. “Well,” he said, “I’m a little uncomfortable with an irreligious party in this country.”

“Your eminence,” I responded, “I think I’ll have more tea.”

The unchurched are an important constituency in the Democratic coalition that Barack Obama brought to power. Democrats don’t like to talk about them, however, because they don’t want to be seen as “the godless party.”

The split between the churched and the unchurched goes back to the 1960s, when values became the defining partisan issue in the U.S. Bill Clinton once said, “If you look back on the sixties and, on balance, you think there was more good than harm, you’re probably a Democrat. And if you think there’s more harm than good, you’re probably a Republican.”

The backlash to the sixties among religious Americans helped create the Reagan majority. The growing number of unchurched Americans has undermined it. We’ve seen views on same-sex marriage and marijuana liberalize with astonishing speed.

In the long run, the Pew study is good news for Democrats. The problem is, politics doesn’t just reflect long-term trends, like changing demographics and declining religiosity. In politics, short-term factors typically dominate.

2008, for example, was a good year for Democrats. In the nationwide exit poll on election day, 16 percent of voters said they had no religious affiliation. They voted 67 percent for Democrats in elections for the House of Representatives.

2014 was a bad year for Democrats. In the 2014 midterm, the percentage of voters with no religious affiliation rose to 18 percent, even though the turnout of young voters was down. But enthusiasm for Democrats lagged in 2014, even among the unchurched. Only 60 percent of them voted for House Democrats.

Sure, the demographic trends look good for Democrats. The problem is, demographics is long. Politics is short.

(Bill Schneider is a professor at George Mason University and a contributor to Al Jazeera. This piece was posted most recently at the Huffington Post)