Christian Colleges, Religious Liberty, and SB 1146

Nathan Busenitz | July 1, 2016

This post is an update to yesterday’s article, An Imminent Attack on Religious Liberty.

On June 30, a piece of proposed state legislation made its way to the California State Assembly Committee on Judiciary. The bill (SB 1146) has already passed in the state senate by a vote of 26–13.

The next stop for the bill, at this point, is the Assembly Committee on Appropriations, before it goes to the floor for a vote. Because the bill is continually being amended, an analysis of the bill as it currently stands can be read here. Or, for a more readable interpretation of the bill, see here.

The goal of this post is to answer some basic questions about this proposed piece of legislation. 

1. What is the basic premise of SB 1146?

SB 1146 prohibits private/religious colleges and universities in California from “discriminating” against LGBT students, faculty, or staff members, even if LGBT lifestyles run contrary to that institution’s religious beliefs.

Students, faculty, or staff who think they have been the object of discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression can sue the institution for discrimination. Because the Bible identifies homosexuality as a sin, it is not difficult to see how Bible-teaching colleges and universities will be accused of discrimination under the new law.

Furthermore, institutions that wish to file for any kind of exemption from Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (federal law governing anti-discrimination policies in education) must publicly notify their students and staff of that exemption. According to Michael Peabody, such public notifications can actually be used as evidence against the institution in the event of a lawsuit:

Students can sue for . . . an injunction if they think they are being discriminated against by a religious college or university. If they happen to sue an institution that is disclosing its Title IX exemption, the fact that institutions have exercised a Federal right to an exemption could be used as evidence against them in state court. (Source)

Peabody goes on to offer this helpful summary of the bill:

First, SB 1146 will require religious colleges and universities to adopt policies of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in order for students to receive state-funded scholarships under the Cal Grant program. Secondly, SB 1146 will require these institutions to give notice if they have requested an exemption to Title IX. Thirdly, SB 1146 will permit lawsuits against institutions that are perceived to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation regardless of whether they accept the Cal-Grant scholarships.

That final sentence is important because it indicates that religious institutions may be subject to SB 1146 whether they accept state financial aid or not.

2. What is the stated rationale behind the bill?

Supporters of the bill contend that this is a civil rights issue. The argument is basically as follows: in the same way that race-based discrimination should have no place in institutions of higher learning, so also discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression should not be tolerated. Institutions in which such discrimination is reportedly found will be subject to punitive litigation.

Supporters of the bill are primarily targeting schools in which students receive federal and state financial aid (such as the Cal-Grant). They argue that such money should not be used to provide assistance to institutions that do not fully comply with anti-discrimination laws (specifically as those laws currently relate to those who identify as LGBT).

As noted above, however, even schools that do not receive government funding or financial aid may still be subject to anti-discrimination litigation under this bill.

By contrast, opponents of SB 1146 contend that this legislation violates the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment—namely, the free exercise of religion—by requiring religious institutions to violate their moral principles in the name of tolerance. As Eric Metaxas points out, the California state government is using anti-discrimination laws as “a license to discriminate” against religious institutions.

3. How should Christians think about this kind of legislation?

While extending the love of Christ through the gospel to all people, Christians cannot equivocate on the clear teaching of Scripture regarding gender issues and the nature of sexual sin. To borrow a line from the recent T4G Conference, we are not phobic and we do not hate. At the same time, however, we cannot capitulate on our Christian convictions. It is incumbent upon evangelical institutions to uphold biblical morality, even if doing so is labeled “discriminatory” by the secular state government (cf. Acts 5:29).

As John MacArthur explains, regarding The Master’s College:

The Master’s College is clear about its biblical position in regard to LGBT issues. We love and care for all people, but we are obligated by our articles of incorporation and our bylaws to teach and practice what we believe in every aspect of campus operation. (Source)

On a practical level, believers ought to respond in prayer, trusting in the fact that God is sovereign over the affairs of our nation. Those who live in California can also contact their state legislators to voice concerns about SB 1146 ( California residents should emphasize the fact that this kind of governmental overreach constitutes a clear violation of fundamental First Amendment rights.

4. What are the practical implications of this bill for Christian colleges and universities?

If it passes, this law could dramatically change the nature of religious education at the college/university level in California. Here are four different perspectives on the significance of this issue:

Albert Mohler: What we’re looking at here is the biggest threat to Christian higher education in the history of the United States of America. We’re looking at the fact that the state of California is here poised to make it virtually impossible for a Christian college or university to be a genuinely Christian college or university in the nation’s most populous state. Make no mistake, this is not an exaggeration. Senate Bill 1146 would effectively strip religious colleges and universities of any right to discriminate on the basis of LGBT issues or even on the basis of religious conviction except in very tightly defined programs that train clergy—that is, in particular pastors of churches. (Source)

Holly Scheer: This threatens religious institutions’ ability to … keep bathrooms and dormitories distinct according to sex, require students to complete theology classes, teach religious ideas in regular coursework, hold corporate prayer at events such as graduation, and so on. In other words, it threatens every practice that makes religious institutions distinct from secular institutions. (Source)

Samuel James: Would the amendment [SB 1146] protect students from discrimination? Certainly, the amendment would probably initiate the shuttering of several California colleges that LGBT activists would consider “discriminatory.” … What sounds like fairness to many progressives is in reality the dismantling of the idea of Christian education. (Source)

Michael Peabody: Assuming that SB 1146 passes and is signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, California’s religious colleges and universities will be put to the test. They will have to decide whether to refuse to comply and litigate the issue, forgo benefits from significant state funding, acquiesce and modify their non-discrimination policies, close down, or move out-of-state. (Source)

5. How does this bill specifically affect The Master’s Seminary?

Here at TMS, our primary concern is for our sister school, The Master’s College, because this bill directly targets them (and other institutions like them). As co-laborers for the gospel, we stand in solidarity with them on this issue.

However, some have asked how this bill might affect The Master’s Seminary specifically.

As the bill currently stands, it does not directly apply to seminaries or institutions that focus on vocational pastoral training. However, it may set a precedent for future legislation directly aimed at seminaries.

Moreover, seminaries may not be completely exempt insofar as it involves their faculty, staff, and any broader educational programs they offer. In the official analysis of the bill (dated June 30, 2016), Thomas Clark writes:

While it seems reasonable that a religious seminary could impose codes of moral conduct on seminarians – including sexual conduct or advocacy of positions at odds with religious teachings – not all employees of the institution are training for a religious vocation. In addition, some institutions mix training in a religious vocation with more general courses of study, so that it is not always clear whether the “purpose” of the institution is vocational training or general education. … [A]s the bill moves forward, the author may wish to consider whether this subdivision should be amended to specify that the exemption does not apply to “the institution” as a whole, but only applies as to those persons preparing for a religious vocation. (pp. 7–8; Source)


Though it is receiving surprisingly scant attention in the mainstream media, SB 1146 represents a significant challenge to faith-based higher education in the state of California. Such may not seem significant to those living in the other 49 states, but as Al Mohler points out:

Even though this legislation is now pending in the California General Assembly, this is not an issue that will end in the state of California. California is and has been for so long the cultural and legal bellwether of the United States. It’s not only the most populous state in the union, but it has been one of the leading forces in terms of moral change. If you want to see the future, you have so often been able to look simply to the state of California. And now we’re looking at the fact that that future would be very dangerous indeed for religious liberty. So in terms of the front line of the battle for religious liberty, for now all eyes are on the state of California. (Source)

The rapidly changing climate of American society is admittedly unsettling (as even some non-Christian journalists openly acknowledge).

However, as believers, our hope is not in this world nor the governmental leaders who rule over us. Legislation like SB 1146 reminds us that we are not home yet. Moreover, it makes us long for the coming of the perfect Judge and King—our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

UPDATE (July 6): SB 1146 passed the California Judiciary by a vote of 7-2. Michael Peabody reports on the bill’s status here.

Nathan Busenitz avatar
Nathan Busenitz is the dean of faculty and associate professor of theology at The Master's Seminary. He is also one of the pastors of Cornerstone, a fellowship group at Grace Community Church.

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