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State senator drops proposal that angered religious universities in California

State Sen. Ricardo Lara has proposed a bill narrowing the number of exemptions religious universities would receive to anti-discrimination laws, drawing concern from dozens of colleges in California. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
State Sen. Ricardo Lara has proposed a bill narrowing the number of exemptions religious universities would receive to anti-discrimination laws, drawing concern from dozens of colleges in California. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Faced with intense opposition from religious colleges in California, a state Senator said Wednesday he has decided to amend a bill by dropping a provision that would have allowed gay and transgender students to more easily sue private universities for discrimination if they are disciplined for violating church teachings.

Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) is removing a provision of his bill that sought to take away the exemption of religious schools to anti-discrimination laws. Instead, he will press forward with the amended bill that would still require such schools to disclose if they have an exemption and report to the state when students are expelled for violating morality codes.

“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,” Lara said.

“I don’t want to just rush a bill that’s going to have unintended consequences so I want to take a break to really study this issue further,” the senator said. He said the requirement for schools to report expulsions based on morality codes to the state Commission on Student Aid will give him information on how common such cases are.

The senator said he will pursue other legislation next year, possibly including the provision dropped Wednesday.

Lara’s decision came after a half-dozen universities formed a new committee called the Assn. of Faith Based Institutions and contributed $350,000.

The group has flooded the districts of members of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, including Chairwoman Lorena S. Gonzalez (D-San Diego), with mailers saying the bill violates religious freedoms and urging voters to contact their Assembly person.

“Stop state control of private education,” says one mailer to Gonzalez’s constituents. Her committee is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday.

The institutions include Azusa Pacific University, Point Loma Nazarene University and William Jessup University.

After Lara's announcement, the universities released a letter to the Senator that said "Pending review of this new language, we are pleased to change our position on this legislation from "oppose unless amended" to `support.' "

The new flexing of political weight is in addition to lobbying that has been done on behalf of 32 universities by a group called Assn. of Independent California Colleges and Universities.

Association President Kristen F. Soares said she wants to see the final language before making a firm statement but said the group will likely end up supporting the bill as amended.

“It’s a positive development,” Soares said. “This gives us time to really work on the issue the senator is trying to address.”

Jessup President John Jackson said his university “can support a bill that includes the disclosure requirements of SB 1146 as previously written.”

As originally written, the bill would have allowed lawsuits from students who allege discriminatory treatment because they are in same-sex relationships or because they are required to use restrooms, locker rooms and student housing that do not correspond to the gender with which they identify, college officials say.

Just last week, opposition was voiced by Los Angeles Catholic Archbishop José Gomez and Bishop Charles Blake of the Church of God in Christ.

“As it is written today, SB 1146 would violate the religious freedom of faith-based colleges and could jeopardize higher educational opportunities for the tens of thousands of Californians they serve, including many who are black, Latino, Asian and low-income,” the two religious leaders wrote.

 

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