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This California bill could hurt poor students at religious schools

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Credit: Ryan Tyler Smith via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Sacramento, Calif., Aug 8, 2016 / 06:07 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Religious students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be most affected by a California bill threatening state-backed student grants to schools that disagree with same-sex marriage and gender ideology.

“The students become the greatest victims in all of this. Students growing up in your youth groups may say ‘we want to go to a school that is going to help us learn our faith while earning a degree.’ This bill would not allow that to happen,” said Prof. Kevin Mannoia, chaplain and pastoral ministry professor at Azusa Pacific University.

The proposed bill S.B. 1146 could have grave financial consequences for these students and their desired schools – and even lead to some schools’ closure. “They wouldn’t be able to choose these schools because they wouldn’t exist,” Mannoia told CNA Aug. 5. Azusa Pacific University is an interdenominational Christian university in California. The state legislature there is considering a bill that could require schools to compromise their religious beliefs or face lawsuits and an end to their state grants under the CalGrant program.

The bill uses language that claims it does not prohibit institutions from various actions, but then immediately says that this purported exemption applies only under certain circumstances. For example, only if institutions provide housing or restroom accommodations for students “consistent with their gender identity” may they reserve housing or restrooms for either male or female students. Institutions may provide separate housing accommodations for married students or students with children only if these accommodations “includes both married opposite-sex and married same-sex couples.” Moral conduct rules and religious practices may only be enforced if they are “uniformly applicable to all students regardless of the student’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Mannoia said he thinks that that the bill has good motives to protect students. But Christian schools are already “deeply committed” to student safety and opposing hostility and discrimination. “We work very hard at that,” he said. The schools are also committed to their religious and moral beliefs, he continued, and this commitment is targeted by the bill. “If a school has such policies that are built on a religious commitment to a lifestyle or a position on marriage or sexual intimacy, then the state could say we are no longer going to provide CalGrants to any institution that discloses this or says they are particularly aligned with that faith system,” Mannoia said.

Required chapel attendance, required courses in religion and the Bible, student admissions or faculty hiring based on religious identity could be targeted by lawsuits under the proposed law, he said. The legislation would “carve away at the ability of these universities and colleges to operate in a manner that is consistent with their faith values.” If the schools will not change their beliefs, they will have to refuse to take CalGrants. The grants allow disadvantaged students to access higher education at a college or university of their choice, including schools consistent with their religious beliefs.

About 25 percent students at religious schools are CalGrant recipients. Among these students, about 80 percent come from disadvantaged populations. At some schools, as many as 40-45 percent of the student body is on CalGrants. Some schools might not be financially sustainable without taking CalGrant students.

“My hunch is that we would probably see a few schools that would have to close in the state of California,” Mannoia said. “Certainly all the faith-based institutions would have to realign their priorities in an effort to replace that money.” He said that even if the funds were replaced through other means, the more serious issue in the long term is the religious freedom of those institutions to govern and hire in a way consistent with their faith. This ability “is in jeopardy and becomes exposed to public liability.”

Mannoia said that supporters of the colleges and university should contact the California legislature to object to the bill. “This is not a time for the Church to become vitriolic or antagonistic. It is not a time to bash any group in our culture at all in an attempt to defeat it,” he said. “This is a time for Christian higher education, for faith-based institutions, to tell their stories. This is a time for us to frame this around the big issues of religious freedom, choice of students and access of students to higher education.”  

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