Dozens of faith-based colleges in California are objecting to legislation that they say would infringe on religious freedom by allowing lawsuits from gay and transgender students who feel discriminated against because their sexual orientation conflicts with church tenets.
The dispute is a new slant on a debate that is roiling other parts of the country where states have sought to adopt so-called "religious freedom" laws, which allow businesses to decline service to same-sex couples if such service violates their religious beliefs, or restrict the use of restrooms by transgender residents to facilities designated for the gender of their birth.
The California bill could open the door to lawsuits from students who allege discrimination because they are in same-sex relationships or because they are required to use restrooms, locker rooms and student housing that does not correspond to the gender with which they identify, college officials say.
"It would impinge upon our ability to exercise our religious freedom," said John Jackson, president of William Jessup University, an evangelical Christian College in Northern California.
"The reason it impinges on those [freedoms] is it opens up the ability for a student to file a lawsuit if they feel like, in any way, shape or form, they experience something at a school like ours that is offensive to them," Jackson said.
Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) 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.
The bill has created a storm of controversy in the Legislature. It was approved by a sharply divided state Senate last month and is awaiting final approval in the Assembly.
Lara said he is adamant that religious universities should be subject to some of the anti-discrimination laws that apply to public colleges.
The state bill targets the growing number of private universities that have obtained an exemption to anti-discrimination laws based on the argument that compliance would conflict with the religious tenets of that organization, said Lara, who is openly gay.
"These universities essentially have a license to discriminate, and students have absolutely no recourse," Lara said Tuesday in a hearing before the Assembly Higher Education Committee approved the bill. "Universities are supposed to be a place where students feel safe and can learn without fear of discrimination or harassment."
Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell) cited standards of conduct at some schools that prohibit same-sex relationships and cross-dressing. Lara said enforcement of such policies could be challenged in court under his proposal.
Some 32 private universities could be affected by the bill, according to Kristen F. Soares, president of the Assn. of Independent Colleges and Universities, which has been representing many campuses.
Soares is negotiating with Lara's office in hopes of reaching a compromise. Universities she represents support a provision of the bill requiring advanced disclosure to students applying for admission that the campus has an exemption from anti-discrimination laws, she said.
Soares said the implications of the bill go beyond issues of sexual orientation. Her group also represents American Jewish University in Los Angeles, and she said the bill could result in a student filing a legal challenge to the university's requirement that there be a kosher-only menu in the dining hall.
Biola University officials say narrowing the religious exemption also could result in lawsuits alleging discrimination on religious grounds because many faith-based institutions in California require a profession of faith from their students.
"It's pretty far-reaching," said Lee Wilhite, a vice president at Biola. "It could potentially eliminate our ability to even pray before class or at events on campus."
The universities most affected are those that get government funds or enroll students who receive state financial aid, including Biola, Fresno Pacific University, Simpson University and Jessup.
University officials have heavily lobbied Republican state senators, who voted against the bill last month as a bloc.
Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerger) said the bill could "chill or stifle" religious freedom in California.
"This bill attacks that principle," agreed Sen. Ted Gaines (R-Rocklin).
In arguing for the new law, Lara told his colleagues that one university in Southern California recently challenged the re-admittance of a student who took a leave of absence during which he acknowledged on social media that he is gay.
Lara also said some transgender students have reported being denied access to gender-appropriate housing.
The bill was inspired by the experiences of students, including Anthony Villarreal, a gay student who was expelled from Jessup in 2013.
Villarreal, who was on a track scholarship at the school, said he believes he was forced to leave the school because of his sexual orientation, something the university denies.
He said he was initially placed on probation and told to undergo counseling and a change of residency after the school said he violated a policy against "sexual misconduct/cohabitation" because of his off-campus living arrangements.
"They said it is because you are living with your boyfriend," he said.
Villarreal, now 25, was later expelled after school officials said he violated a policy against violence when he was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence after an argument with his boyfriend, although he was not charged or convicted. He cited a meeting with one university official.
"At a meeting he said, 'Maybe you should take a break from being gay and just try to get your life straight.' I was pretty offended," Villarreal recalled.
Villarreal, a self-described Christian, supports the Lara bill.
Asked about Villarreal, university representatives said no student has been expelled for same-sex activity in the last five years.
"While University policy prohibits us from discussing private student matters, we do not discriminate against students based on their sexual orientation," the school said in a statement. "However, student participation in WJU is a voluntary association governed by a biblically-based code of conduct for every student enrolled at the University."
The stakes are high for religious universities seeking to alter the bill, Jackson added.
"Our concern is that this bill might unintentionally end up with an environment where people are going to come here and believe somehow that they are at Sac State," Jackson said, referring to Sacramento State, the public university.