Major Religious Leaders Speak Out Against California Higher Education Bill

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention released a statement yesterday signed by almost 150 notable religious leaders opposing California Senate Bill 1146.

Calling SB 1146 “its own form of discrimination,” the ERLC-led coalition urged the California Assembly to abandon the bill in order to protect religious freedom in higher education. The signers of the statement include Russell Moore, Rick Warren, and Robert George.

SB 1146 was introduced by California State Senator Ricardo Lara, and would eliminate 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 lose their exemption if this bill were to become law.

According to Biola University, SB 1146 would have chilling effects on higher education in California. Faith-based institutions would no longer be able to require a profession of faith by their students or require students to attend chapel services. They also would not be allowed to integrate faith into their teaching curriculum.

The ERLC statement is remarkable for both the number and various backgrounds of the signers. The list of almost 150 signers includes leaders from numerous denominations and institutions.

“We, the undersigned, do not necessarily agree with one another’s religious views,” the statement notes, “but we agree on the necessity of the liberty to exercise these views…While we do not all agree on religious matters, we all agree that the government has no place in discriminating against poor religious minorities or in pitting a religious education institution’s faith-based identity against its American identity.”

The statement continues:

“Legislation of this nature threatens the integrity not only of religious institutions, but of any viewpoint wishing to exercise basic American freedoms, not least of which is the freedom of conscience… At the root of the American experiment is the idea that conscience and religious conviction come before the demands of the state. Some of us disagree with the sexual ethics of orthodox Jews, Christians, and Muslims giving rise to this legislation, but we are unified in our resistance to the government setting up its own system of orthodoxy. As the American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin once said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” No less is this true than on matters of religious liberty. Where the state can encroach on one religion’s free exercise, it can just as easily trample on any other religion’s free exercise. We therefore join in solidarity across religious lines to speak against Senate Bill 1146.”

The broad coalition statement calls on the California Assembly to abandon SB 1146:

“To ensure the future of the free exercise of religion in higher education in California and across America, we respectfully call on the supporters of Senate Bill 1146 to immediately withdraw their support of this bill, with the commitment to disavow similar intrusions in the future. Opposition to this bill is not grounded in the protection of religious liberty only, nor for the special pleading of one religion in particular, but for the protection of American society and American democracy. Such protection requires a civil society welcoming of religious diversity.”

Finally, the ERLC statement closes with a resounding affirmation of the importance of religious freedom:

“The future of a free America requires the full participation of religion in public life. Religious higher education cultivates both the mind and the soul. Senate Bill 1146 endangers the integrity of religious education institutions and discourages them from acting according to their conscience for fear of government retribution. As Americans with a rich legacy of freedoms afforded to us by the laws of nature and of nature’s God, and enshrined in the Constitution, we can do better. As we renew our commitment to religious pluralism in the public square, we should embrace debate, welcome dissent, and encourage civility as we work together for the sake of the common good and of a country we are all unreservedly blessed to call our home.”

SB 1146 is expected to come before the California Senate Appropriations Committee tomorrow, August 11. If it passes that committee, it will continue on to the full Senate for a hearing sometime next week.

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