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Christian colleges receive a baptism by legislation

With SB 1146, Sen. Ricardo Lara, left, challenged small Christian colleges’ ability to restrict gay, lesbian and transgender students and employees.
With SB 1146, Sen. Ricardo Lara, left, challenged small Christian colleges’ ability to restrict gay, lesbian and transgender students and employees. The Associated Press

In the legislative bazaar that is California’s Capitol, anyone can get a lobbyist, or so you would think.

Tobacco, gambling and alcohol have had representation for as long as there has been a Legislature. Everyone else affected by legislation, from acupuncturists and pawnbrokers to adult entertainers and the Church of Scientology, comes prepared for battle.

This year, it was small Christian colleges’ turn. But when the culture wars flared, the colleges, which didn’t have a presence in Sacramento, found it wasn’t so easy to find help.

California law exempts religious colleges from complying with certain civil laws based on their beliefs and allows low-income students at the schools to collect tax-funded scholarships, Cal Grants.

Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Los Angeles-area Democrat, and Assemblyman Evan Low, a Democrat from Silicon Valley, gave the colleges a baptism by legislation, challenging their ability to restrict gay, lesbian and transgender students and employees.

Lara’s bill, SB 1146, sought to narrow the state exemption and grant students and employees the right to sue if they were expelled or fired based on their sexual orientation. Low’s bill, AB 1888, sought to deny Cal Grants to students who attend such institutions. Based on a legislative staff estimate, about 3,200 students at seven Christian colleges – among them Fresno Pacific – receive $26.6 million a year in Cal Grants.

As Lara explained it, gay Christians, like gay Catholics such as himself, should be able to “fully participate in their faith and be free and open about who they are.”

“I don’t want to harm the student,” Lara said. “I do want to hold the universities accountable. … If the student wants to go to one of these universities, they should be able to go. They also should be able to be free to be who they are.”

The colleges contend they don’t discriminate. But they also answer to their higher authority. William Jessup University in Rocklin, one of the colleges that would be most affected by the legislation, states its mission is “to educate transformation leaders for the glory of God.”

“At William Jessup University,” President John Jackson said, “we believe that biblical marriage is between one man and one woman. So a same-sex married couple could not attend or be employed at William Jessup University.”

In a Legislature controlled by Democrats, where the American Civil Liberties Union and gay rights organizations have clout, the colleges had good cause to worry they were heading to a slaughter, and they set out to find representation.

One veteran lobbyist registered to represent some of the colleges but terminated the arrangement a few days later. Another lobbyist considered handling the colleges’ cause but thought better of it. Taking up a conservative Christian cause might not be good for other clients who have more earthly interests.

“I heard many folks in the ‘Third House’ ... didn’t take them as a client because they don’t agree with them,” Lara said of the lobbyists. “They couldn’t find representation. … It’s kind of fascinating to see the moral high ground in the Third House.”

Maybe lobbyists were taking moral high ground by declining to represent the Christian colleges. Or maybe lobbyists understand that as Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, Lara arguably is the second most powerful member of the upper house. No need to antagonize him for a few pieces of silver.

Veteran Republican consultant Rob Stutzman, an alumnus of Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, has come to the colleges’ aid, though he is not a registered lobbyist.

The colleges also formed an organization, the Association of Faith Based Institutions, and infused it with $350,000 in late July and early August. The Capitol crowd took notice of the rapid accumulation of $350,000 in an election year, though Stutzman said the plan never was to give campaign contributions.

Instead, Stutzman embarked on a campaign to kill Lara’s bill by airing radio ads and sending mailers to voters into the districts of legislators, several of them moderate Democrats. The message: “Freedom of religion is guaranteed by both the U.S. and California Constitutions, but Senate Bill 1146 would significantly harm religious liberty in California by removing the religious freedom of California’s faith-based colleges and universities.”

Low’s bill stalled. And in August, Lara pared his bill back, stripping the provision allowing for lawsuits. As it stands, the bill would require that the colleges fully disclose to students their expectations and file regular reports detailing any student expulsions.

With the changes, the colleges are supportive. But some of Lara’s allies from the left think he should have gone further. Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, removed himself as a co-author. Lara said he expects to pursue the issue further in 2017.

People can believe what they want. But the freedoms of speech, association and privacy are fundamental, too. When tax money is involved – Cal Grants are funded by you and me – the state gets a say. Christian colleges would be wise to find someone who can help them exercise that other First Amendment right, the right to petition their government.

Dan Morain is editorial page editor of The Sacramento Bee. Contacts: 916-321-1907, dmorain@sacbee.com, @DanielMorain