As societal views of sex, gender, and sexual orientation have shifted, an increasing number of LGBT advocacy groups have started lobbying against the Title IX exemptions on the grounds that they’re a license for religious schools to discriminate. Some have pushed for a change to the law: A recent bill proposed in the California legislature, SB 1146, recommended restrictions to religious exemptions. Legislators like the bill’s sponsor, Ricardo Lara, argued that schools should be required to publicly declare when they apply for exemptions, should not receive state grants if they discriminate, and should be subject to private lawsuits over such discrimination. If SB 1146 had been enacted in this form, it may have eliminated religious exemptions from the discrimination provisions in California’s Equity in Higher Education Act, which require equal treatment in education regardless of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, among other classifications. Because of California’s influence on national politics, many religious schools were concerned that if this bill passed, similar laws would be established in other states. This could affect schools’ tax-exempt status or even accreditation, a fear that many in Christian higher education seem to share.
Several groups opposed the legislation and tried to work with Senator Lara on a more mutually acceptable bill. The Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities asked Lara to restrict the bill so that it would only require religious schools to disclose their exemptions, as opposed to ending these exceptions. Similarly, the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities strongly opposed the bill because of its potential effect on students’ ability to choose religious schools. On August 10th, Lara announced he would amend the bill to only focus on the disclosure provision and a requirement to report instances in which schools expel students for morality-code violations.
Christian colleges, especially in California, will likely see Lara’s change of direction as a hard-fought victory, but this may be a temporary reprieve. As the Los Angeles Times reported, Lara intends to pursue further legislation next year, when he may reintroduce the provisions that he dropped this year: “The goal for me has always been to shed the light on the appalling and unacceptable discrimination against LGBT students at these private religious institutions throughout California,” he said. If Lara believes these schools are guilty of “appalling and unacceptable discrimination,” it is difficult to imagine him or others who share his views ever seeing these religious exemptions as legitimate and beneficial to public diversity.
While efforts like SB 1146 would be harmful to religious freedom in higher education, they highlight legitimate concerns about how religious schools treat LGBT students. One of the challenges for the current system is accommodating students who find themselves stuck at a school with strong religious foundations with which they no longer identify. People often change their views on important issues while they’re in college, and religious students are no different. Students might choose to attend a religious university because they want an education and community that will support their spiritual convictions. But outside of the influence of their parents and home church, they may begin to change their views. A university that was a wonderful fit for a freshman may feel constraining and hostile only a few years later. An educational environment should never feel hostile for any student, but for those with views that are in the minority on campus, it is hard not to feel embattled. And this feeling is only intensified when that view is tied to a student’s sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation.