California Dreams Up Nightmare for Catholic Education

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A nightmare scenario has further developed in California, threatening to severely harm Catholic colleges as legislators pursue a radical “gender ideology” and the dismantling of religious freedom.

New amendments to an anti-religious education bill working its way through the California legislature clearly impact Catholic colleges’ employment practices, effectively forcing them to drop out of the state’s financial aid programs for students.

Previous versions of Senate Bill (SB) 1146 made religious colleges, except for seminaries and similar programs, subject to the nondiscrimination clause in California’s Equity in Higher Education Act. That clause forbids discrimination against students with regard to “sexual orientation,” and its prohibition against sex discrimination has been interpreted to include self-declared “gender identity.”

The bill also punishes religious colleges that have legally obtained exemptions from the federal Title IX law, which bans sex discrimination in education but has been interpreted by the Obama administration to require accommodations for “transgender” students. It requires those colleges to publicly declare their exemption in a variety of ways to a variety of audiences, including prospective students and employees.

It is, in effect, a modern “Scarlet Letter” for faithful Christian educators.

These provisions apply only to colleges accepting state funds. But nearly all religious colleges in California participate in the Cal Grant program, which provides students up to $9,084 if they attend a private four-year college. Exclusion from the program would make attendance at a Catholic college unaffordable for many, and Catholic colleges would be at a severe disadvantage in competing for students.

All of these terrible elements remain in the new version of the bill. But according to the legal experts at Alliance Defending Freedom, recent amendments added by the state Assembly Judiciary Committee make the situation worse.

The bill now amends not only the Equity in Higher Education Act, but also the state’s Government Code 11135, which clearly concerns discrimination in employment as well as student policies. There was some ambiguity as to whether prior versions of the bill applied only to student policies, but the Government Code clearly references employment practices including hiring, firing, faculty expectations and health benefits.

This is unacceptable for a faithful Catholic institution, which must ensure that its professors uphold Catholic teaching in the classroom and by their personal example.

With regard to students, there has been some helpful clarification in the new version of the bill. A religious college is explicitly permitted to enforce moral codes, mandatory religious practices and housing policies that are applied universally without consideration of a student’s claim to gender or sexuality. Also, a religious college may refuse the use of its facilities for purposes that violate its religious mission—presumably including same-sex weddings.

However, the new bill is explicit in its requirement that religious colleges make single-sex facilities and residences available to “transgender” students, regardless of their biological sex. And if a college offers housing for married students, it must include legally married same-sex couples.

Should this bill become law, I see no option for faithful Catholic colleges but to withdraw from the Cal Grants program. The campaign to force a radical “gender ideology” and sexual immorality on religious colleges could shove them into second-class status. And the campaign likely will not end here; we can expect efforts in California and elsewhere to pass even more draconian laws against religious schools and charities.

Worse—and this is what I fear most—the persecution will tempt California’s less faithful Catholic colleges to capitulate and further erode the foundations of Catholic education.

The precedent for capitulation has already been set. Although Loyola Marymount University and Santa Clara University waged brief but noble battles to remove abortion coverage from their employee health insurance, they fell silent in the face of new state rules forcing that coverage even on religious institutions. And only Thomas Aquinas College and John Paul the Great University have been strong in opposing the Obama administration’s HHS Mandate.  

The campaign to rid California of religious education must be fought vigorously. But the future looks bleak: encroachment on Catholic education at both the state and federal level may soon require faithful Catholic schools and colleges to withdraw from government aid programs.

This should be quite possible for Catholic schools, but I don’t know how many of the Catholic colleges can survive financially, unless the forced corruption of moral standards at other colleges will have the happy effect of driving donors and paying students to the few remaining bastions of moral education. How many Catholic colleges choose to compromise their Catholic beliefs rather than give up taxpayer funds is a question of great importance to Catholic families.

What they do in response to this bill, now and if it becomes law, will have lasting consequences for their institutions and for Catholic families. I believe that capitulation might give up the project of Catholic education altogether for all but a few colleges. The time is very late to oppose California’s campaign against religious education, but Catholic college leaders should be fighting it with all the effort they can muster.