Tagline: Until the Work Is Done
California Rejects ‘Religious Liberty’ as an Excuse for Anti-LGBT Harm
October 3, 2016 at 5:24 pm

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By Karen Ocamb

In their prominent political section, the Los Angeles Times announced that they were following “10 of the biggest issues” facing California lawmakers this legislative session. However, despite national attention on the explosive issue of “religious liberty,” none of the top 10 bills dealt with that hot topic, even though several bills passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown expressly took on that contentious debate. It’s almost as if California is waving a rainbow flag at the country, suggesting a return to a time when “religious liberty” was matter of individual conscience and not a political chew toy of the religious right.

On Friday, Brown signed Calfiornia Sen. Ricardo Lara’s bill, SB 1146, “Uncovering Discrimination in Higher Education,” without equivocation or a signing statement.  At one point, SB 1146 was the subject of a massive backlash with hundreds of thousands of dollars used to lobby lawmakers to allow private, Bible-based universities that receive public funding to continue to discriminate against LGBT employees and students, based on their religious beliefs. Lara amended the bill, taking out a provision allowing students to sue the institution if they are expelled based on the school’s “moral code”— and opposition from some private schools vanished. But the schools that are engaged in the worst discrimination continued to lobby hard for its defeat, with misleading claims that the bill was an attack on their religious beliefs.

However, even after it was amended, the core of the bill remains: private universities granted a federal Title IX exemption are now required by law to notify the California Student Aid Commission and otherwise publicly disclose if they discriminate against students or staff based on gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation based on their religious beliefs. Additionally, the bill requires the schools to collect and produce hard data on just how many students and staff they expel or fire, data that could be used to publicly question whether the U.S. Department of Education— which now has little discretion—should continue to grant an abusive institution tax-payer funded breaks in violation of federal non-discrimination policies.

The two core principles of the bill—disclosure that a university is exempt from Title IX protections and data collection—give potential and current LGBT students and staff an awareness of the consequences should they come out or be outted at the school and give LGBT allies a red flag if they don’t want to violate their own progressive, equality-centric conscience.

SB 1146 sponsor Equality California reports that “over the last three years there has been a significant increase in the number of universities that apply for and receive an exemption to Title IX. Only one school was granted an exemption in 2013. Today, some 43 schools nationally have received exemptions, with at least six of them in California.  Currently, universities that have Title IX exemptions do not have to disclose them to students or staff.”

“No university should have a license to discriminate, especially those receiving state funds,” Lara said in a statement released by Equality California. “Those that do will now have to inform incoming students of their Title 9 exemption. This law represents a critical first step in the ongoing efforts to protect students from discrimination for living their truths or loving openly.”

“The public needs to know which schools have licenses to discriminate against LGBT people and to ignore California’s civil rights protections,” said Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California. “This law will give fair warning to students, staff and faculty members before they accept enrollment or employment at a university with a license to discriminate.”

At one point during the debate, there was discussion among the religious right that SB 1146 could be exported to other states, with opponents falsely claiming that the bill would totally undermine the right of a school to discriminate, based on their principles of religious liberty.

“What opponents of this bill try to hide from the public and the press is that SB 1146 applies only to private colleges that use taxpayer dollars,” said Zbur. “It is the longstanding policy and law of the state of California that state taxpayer dollars cannot be used to discriminate against LGBT people. If these colleges and universities want to continue to discriminate against LGBT students and employees, with cruel and harsh consequences for their lives, they should not expect California taxpayers to fund it.”

Equality California had a hard decision to make when some of their legislative allies voted no or abstained from voting on SB 1146. As a result, though painful, EQCA un-endorsed six elected officials as no longer reaching the high bar of 100% support for full LGBT equality.

Other religious liberty-related bills received little of the same flurry of opposition as SB 1146. With more and more businesses, entertainers and major sporting events moving out of North Carolina to protest the state’s deeply discriminatory anti-LGBT HB2, a national consensus seems to be emerging, agreeing with Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin that, “The days of attacking LGBTQ people for political gain are over.”

Gov. Brown also agreed, signing Assemblymember Evan Low’s AB 1887, “Prevent California-Funded Travel to States with A License to Discriminate.” The bill prohibits state agencies and the legislature “from approving state funded or sponsored travel to a state that, after June 26, 2015, has enacted a law that voids or repeals existing state or local protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression, or has enacted a law that authorizes or requires discrimination against same-sex couples or their families on these bases,” bill co-sponsor Equality California explains on the its website.  The law allows for common sense exemptions such as travel connected to enforcing state law or required by existing contracts. The attorney general will determine which states belong on the travel ban list.

It remains to be seen if the wave of equality and the firm legislative rejection of “religious liberty” as a weapon to harm LGBT people will ripple out across other states. But those who steadfastly cling to the “right to discriminate” based on their personal religious beliefs will continue to face an economic and political backlash from those who wish freedom for all.

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