Article Jul 20, 2016

Religious liberty trouble in California: An interview with the President of Biola Univerity

I will be graduating from Biola University this fall with a Bachelor of Arts degree. As I reflect upon my time there, I am increasingly grateful for the influence of this institution. I transferred to Biola during my sophomore year, and I immediately recognized its distinctiveness as a university that fuses the Christian faith with honest intellectual exploration. It is a place where the gospel is seen as both the foundation and end goal of all academic pursuits. Biola equips followers of Christ to engage the world thoughtfully and constructively, in a way that offers a differing perspective from the prevailing cultural narrative.

Society profits from universities like Biola that produce ethical thinkers who can contribute to the marketplace of ideas. As a student who has benefitted greatly from receiving a distinctively Christian education, I am concerned by recent governmental threats to such institutions. This prompted me to ask Dr. Barry Corey to share his thoughts on the issue as the current president of Biola and a key voice in this conversation over religious liberty.

Would you mind providing a brief overview of what Senate Bill 1146 is proposing?

SB 1146 is a bill that was proposed in the California legislature this year, passed in the Senate in May and is soon to be debated and voted on in the Assembly. In its current form (as of June 29), the bill would force any higher education institution that receives state funding (or whose students receive state financial tuition assistance) to comply with state nondiscrimination laws (including sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression) with only some limited exceptions.

Historically, religious colleges and universities have been exempted from certain laws that would cause them to compromise their faith tenets and practices. SB 1146 would remove many of those exemptions and mandate that religious schools adopt campus policies, conduct standards, hiring practices and more that run contrary to what they believe about things like sexual ethics, marriage and gender. The most recent version of the bill (June 29) also jeopardizes Cal Grant aid for students who attend religious schools and would make discrimination on the basis of religion unlawful (e.g. faith requirements for student admissions, religious hiring and employment practices, etc.).

How does SB 1146 threaten the future of Biola University and other religious institutions of higher education?

SB 1146 represents an unprecedented narrowing of religious freedom in America. By removing protections for religious colleges that allow for free exercise of faith (per the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution), SB 1146, in effect, communicates that the government, not individual religious communities, determines which beliefs are acceptable and how faith can and cannot be lived out. For example, if passed, SB 1146 would likely mean that schools like Biola would no longer be able to maintain certain conduct, housing, admissions, employment and other policies according to their Christian convictions about sexuality and gender. What’s at stake for religious institutions of higher education is nothing short of their ability to exist as alternative communities; communities whose alternative ways of thinking and living allow for distinct educational practice and meaningful missional impact.

Why is it important for the health of our society that institutions like Biola are allowed to maintain their counter-cultural convictions?

I’ve been thinking recently about the preservative function that institutions like Biola play in society. At a time when change is rapid and ideas about fundamental human questions (marriage, sexuality and gender, for example) are increasingly in flux and untethered to any authority beyond individual experience, institutions like Biola help slow things down and bring time-tested, biblical wisdom to bear on important questions. In clinging to “old,” biblical ways of thinking on these matters, we are able to preserve traditions of living and believing that might otherwise get swept up and lost in the sea of change. Fifty years from now in America, if knowledge institutions like Biola have all been shut down or forced to change their countercultural ways of thinking and living, who will be left to preserve these traditions?

Furthermore, as society becomes increasingly de-Christianized and biblically illiterate, who will be left to impart robust Christian teaching and biblical wisdom to the next generation? Places like Biola are vital for the future of the church but also for the future of a society that needs institutions of higher learning where students learn moral frameworks beyond the self. And when the “self” is the only measure of morality, a million different contradictory visions will be all that we have, producing chaos and confusion and a society based only on turf wars and brute Darwinian survival. We are seeing signs of this already in America, a fracture and violence and incivility that are the symptoms of a “to each their own” morality. I’m not saying a Christian morality must be imposed or legislated on everyone; just that its ability to be viably present in society is more important than we know. New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, talks about the important “moral capital” that religious communities provide and warns against efforts to undermine or inhibit these communities’ ability to function distinctively: “If you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble.”

Why should non-Christians also be concerned about religious liberty, and thus join in fighting SB 1146?

Even those who don’t care about Christianity in particular should care about the bigger principles of pluralism and religious freedom, as well as the First Amendment freedom to speak and live according to one’s convictions, even if those convictions are unpopular. America is at its best when it lives up to its ideals of diversity, inclusion, freedom and fairness for all, when different strands and traditions are not only allowed to exist but are celebrated as valuable presences in society. A democratic society is weakened insofar as distinct religious communities are stripped of their distinctiveness and dissenting views on contested topics are squelched. Anyone who cares about a thriving democracy should care about a thriving and inclusive pluralism where the government allows for disagreement and doesn’t mandate sameness on important topics. SB 1146 represents an undemocratic, top-down enforcement of one acceptable set of beliefs and behavior about sexuality and gender. It flippantly disregards the freedom of millions of Americans whose faith calls them to a different set of beliefs and behaviors. This is a dangerous empowering of politicians to be the sole arbiters of morality, and it sets a precedent that any advocate for democracy should oppose.

Do you think religious liberty is talked about enough at Christian universities, and if not, do you have any ideas of how to change this?

I think there is an education gap at Christian universities with regard to religious liberty. Many students see laws like SB 1146 as simply the government seeking to protect the rights of LGBT students on religious campuses. What could be wrong with that? Most of our students have LGBT people in their lives who they care deeply about, and so it’s hard for them to get too enthusiastic about something (religious freedom) that has regrettably been positioned in the media as an anti-LGBT cause. Unfortunately, the narrative often heard in public debates is that “religious freedom” is simply a “license to discriminate,” and this narrative naturally does not sit well with many on American college and university campuses. But this is not what religious liberty is about. We need to do a better job of correcting this false narrative, making clear that we do value, protect, love and care for LGBT students in our midst, but we also want to be free to hold beliefs and policies in alignment with our faith.

I think the principle of religious liberty needs to be framed in a more positive way on our campuses. It’s a principle that is foundational to a pluralistic society: the freedom of distinct religious communities to remain distinctly religious, whether they be Christian or Muslim or Jewish or whatever. We need to be clear that religious freedom is not just about fighting for evangelical rights or Christian rights, but freedom for all religions. It’s the bigger principle that matters more than the survival of individual institutions like Biola. Do we want to live in a world where the government decides which beliefs are OK and which are not, where politicians have the power to determine the scope of how religious faith is lived out in communities like Biola? These are the stakes of religious freedom, and students and stakeholders at Christian universities should care about these questions.

How can people most effectively voice their disapproval of SB 1146?

We created a website that outlines four specific steps people can take if they want to voice their disapproval of SB 1146. It’s crucial that California residents reach out to their Assembly members today to express their concerns about the bill, but to do so with a civil and respectful tone. Even if you don’t live in California, you can raise awareness about the bill on social media (#SB1146) and share the information about it with your friends and family members in California. I also encourage Christians everywhere to pray about this situation and ask God to guide faith institutions and leaders through these challenging times.

Conclusion

Dr. Corey is honest about what is currently at stake in regards to religious liberty and the future of Christian higher education. It is imperative that students at Christian colleges—and all Christians, as they are able—understand and engage this issue in a helpful way, so that future students can have the same opportunities we have been granted. All who value religious liberty need to voice their solidarity with the leaders of our faith-based institutions as our government officials stand at this ideological crossroads.