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

July 20, 2016

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.


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.

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Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24