If Higher Education’s Religious Freedoms Go, So Goes Our Charitable Society

As was demonstrated by California Senate Bill 1146, higher education is a present, and, certainly, future battleground over the place of religion in American public life. The California ballot measure would have restricted the availability of state funding for economically disadvantaged and minority students who chose to attend private, religiously affiliated schools. While purporting to eliminate religious discrimination, the law would have introduced new discrimination by coercively punishing religious beliefs on matters related to human sexuality. The bill would have effectively prevented religious institutions from setting expectations of belief and conduct that align with the institution’s religious beliefs. While the California ballot measure was amended for 2016, dropping the most restrictive language, the sponsoring senator has stated that he intends to bring the same issue again next year.

In what ways do institutions of higher education face specific challenges to religious freedoms? What are the contributions of religious institutions of higher learning to both specific faith communities and American society at large? Why is protecting religious freedom in higher education of significant importance?

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This August, intense opposition from private religious educational institutions and multi-faith leaders stirred California’s state legislatures to modify Senate Bill 1146, a measure originally targeting state aid for students enrolled in religious colleges committed to upholding a traditional sexual ethic. But because of shifting cultural winds, expect SB 1146’s original intent to be a far-sighted precursor to future challenges to higher education’s religious freedoms.

No longer is the religious freedom debate in America confined to battles between religious small business owners and their clients. Moral relativism’s increasing influence in society has shifted the battle of freedom of religion vs. malleable morality to the now much larger and far more politically and demographically significant realm of higher education. For this reason, Gregory Baylor, Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel and Director of the Religious Schools Program, dubbed SB 1146 “one of the most significant threats that there has ever been to religious freedom.”  

Two specific challenges to higher education’s religious freedom can be expected to intensify as our postmodern society moves further away from pluralism as the infrastructure of academia.

First, we can expect future attempts to neutralize the core values of private religious educational institutions deemed “oppressive and bigoted morality.” One example already in motion is State Senator Ricardo Lara’s strategy to neutralize California’s faith-based universities by public shaming. Sen. Lara is pressing forward with the amended bill that would still require private religious universities to publically disclose if they have a religious exemption and report to the state when students are expelled for violating morality codes upholding religious commitments.

It is important to note that neutralizing a faith-based institution’s core values only results in that institution’s irrelevancy, decline, and ultimately, demise.  

We’ve seen a similar formula applied within some liberal Christian seminaries. Unorthodox leaders within certain old-line Protestant seminaries chose to neutralize the distinct Christ-centered teachings of their seminaries keeping in step with their affiliated denomination to appear more palatable to secular society.

This plan has backfired miserably on many of the Episcopal Church’s seminaries. Instead of attracting students of the postmodern culture, seminaries like Episcopal Divinity School with its mere 35 full-time students is no longer able to grant degrees after the coming academic year. The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Director of Anglican Action, Jeffrey Walton, noted, “A menu of recycled 1960s-era liberation theology themes garnished with radical sexuality and gender studies proved unappealing to prospective seminarians.”

Compromising or neutralizing distinct core values from a religious educational institution removes the critical components that attract students called to serve the public good.

My own religious alma mater, Regent University, recites the motto “Christian Leadership to change the world.” Consider how many faithful students are attracted to religious universities like Regent University who go on to serve as well-equipped organizers in their church food pantries, serve as trained counselors in community centers, homeless shelters, legal aid offices, children’s homes, child care facilities, and countless other faith-based ministries that America’s communities depend on.

Second, if attempts to neutralize a particularly devout religious institution’s core values fail, then the next goal will be increased financial and political pressures until closure is inevitable. The original goal of SB 1146 was to make it harder for California’ religious colleges to stay financially solvent so long as they continued to enforce traditional sexual ethics. This goal is a bit easier now that the Obama Administration has expanded Title IX non-discrimination compliance to include gender identity (an individual’s perceived gender identity without regard for biological sex indicators).

Of course, if financial avenues are unsuccessful in bullying an institution into compliance then accreditation will be leveraged. In Canada, such bullying tactics have already been tried. The private Christian Trinity Western University (TWU) recently battled the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society (NSBS) over accreditation for their law school. NSBS made TWU’s law school accreditation contingent upon the removal of the university’s Community Covenant prohibiting sex outside of marriage between one woman and one man. Thankfully, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s decision in favor of TWU due to its Community Covenant’s basis in religious convictions.

Let us never forget pluralism is the foundation of higher education and academic thought. How counterproductive then is it to neutralize all higher educational institutions or foster the closure of nonconformist universities? The goal of higher education is to challenge students to think critically, not identically.

What students learn at university will define our culture. If higher education’s religious freedoms go, so goes our flourishing, free-thinking, and charitable society.


Chelsen Vicari serves as the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Evangelical Program Director. She is the author of Distortion: How the New Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel and Damaging the Faith. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Political Science and History from Radford University and a Master’s degree in International Politics from Regent University’s Robertson School of Government.


**All views and opinions presented in this essay are solely those of the author and publication on Cornerstone does not represent an endorsement or agreement from the Religious Freedom Institute or its leadership.**

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