California State Senator Drops Controversial Higher Education Bill Amid Pressure From Religious Groups

California State Senator Ricardo Lara

California State Senator Ricardo Lara has dropped a key provision of his higher education bill under heavy pressure from religious groups and a broad coalition of religious leaders.

The provision in SB 1146 would have eliminated the current religious exemption in the Equity in Higher Education Act for all faith-based educational institutions, except those controlled by religious organizations to train ministers, such as seminaries. Almost all Christian colleges and universities in California would have lost their exemption if this provision had become law.

Lara dropped that provision, and now says he will push forward with an amended version of SB 1146 that will simply require schools to disclose if they have an exemption and report to the state when students are expelled for violating morality codes.

“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,” said Lara on Wednesday. The senator did note that he will pursue other related legislation next year. Asked whether that would include the controversial provision, Lara would not rule it out.

Lara’s decision to drop this provision came just days after the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, released a lengthy statement signed by almost 150 notable religious leaders calling on the California Assembly to drop SB 1146 in order to protect religious liberty.

The ERLC statement declared that “Though [SB 1146] purports to eliminate discrimination, it results in its own form of discrimination by stigmatizing and coercively punishing religious beliefs that disagree on contested matters related to human sexuality… Senate Bill 1146 endangers the integrity of religious education institutions and discourages them from acting according to their conscience for fear of government retribution.”

After news broke that Lara was dropping the provision, ERLC President Russell Moore reacted on Twitter:

The amended version of Senate Bill 1146 is scheduled for a hearing in the California Senate Appropriations Committee tomorrow. There is expected to be little or no opposition to the new version of the bill from religious groups. Several California faith-based institutions that had previously opposed the bill released a statement on Wednesday afternoon saying that they would now support it.

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