Religious Freedom and Higher Education: Worldview Matters

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?

Go here to see other pieces in this series: Religious Freedom and Higher Education

I do not often pay extended attention to state-specific legislative battles in California. But the recent discussion regarding California Senate Bill 1146 drew my attention and my concern. While this story may not have made national headlines, it certainly generated much discussion among leaders in Christian higher education. The original bill, had it passed, would have made it very difficult for Christian institutions to carry out their biblical mission. The bill as presented represented a massive infringement on religious liberty, as religious liberty expert Thomas Berg notes. And while the Christian community managed to put enough pressure on the sponsoring senator for him to back off the most offensive parts, he has indicated he intends to revisit the issue in 2017, the LA Times reports. It is probably only a matter of time before all of us in Christian higher education face the same battle.

This summer, the California legislature met to consider this bill that would “narrow” a religious exemption on discrimination laws for all universities except those exclusively training students for pastoral ministry. All the regulations that apply to state universities would have applied to Christian liberal arts universities that accept state funding. Under the legislation originally proposed, universities like Biola would have been forced to maintain the same policies regarding student admission, student housing, and student requirements that UCLA maintains.

The sponsor of this bill has been pushing hard for this for one issue in particular – he is concerned about discrimination against LGBT students at Christian institutions. It is clear that this kind of legislation would take aim the ability of Christian universities to hold fast to their belief in the biblical definition of marriage and gender identity. This bill as originally presented would open locker rooms and student housing to the transgender agenda, among other things.

This should come as little surprise because, as Samuel James points out, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli acknowledged during last summer’s Supreme Court gay marriage case that even the tax-exempt status of traditional-marriage schools was going to be “an issue.”

In the California case, a looming question at the heart of this “issue” is: why can pastoral training schools be exempted but not liberal-arts Christian colleges? Why could a Christian liberal arts university be sued for discrimination but not a seminary? This confusion stems from the misconception that there is some sort of “great divide” between the secular and the sacred. On one side you have your vocation, your education, and your skills. These practical matters, so the secularists believe, are inherently different from private religious beliefs, which must be banished from the public square. These private beliefs may be trotted out on Sundays, but otherwise, they stay on the other side of the chasm. Daily life happens on one side – God is relegated to the other.

But in a coherent Biblical worldview, that chasm does not and cannot exist. There is no separation between the way we live our lives and the truths that shape our lives. Worldview is not a pair of reading glasses that one puts on occasionally – in church or with family but not at your employment or in your university. Rather, worldview is the set of lenses worn in every part of life and without which one could not see anything clearly.  

At Bob Jones University, we unashamedly embrace a Christian worldview for every student in any discipline. Christian education is for every believer, no matter what his full-time occupation may be. God is God in every area of life, all truth is His truth, and all of life is subject to His claims of sovereignty. Therefore, it follows that there should be no difference between the rights of Christian schools that offer only ministerial training and the rights of Christian schools that offer a variety of majors. Both desire to train Christian leaders to serve God in whatever area He has called them.

If recent happenings in California are any indication, that idea could soon become subject to punishment. For the institution I serve, such legislation would directly threaten our ability to carry out our mission. At Bob Jones University, we are committed to giving students a liberal-arts education immersed in our Christian faith. A bill like this would infringe on the mission of our institution, as well as other faith-based universities in South Carolina and throughout the United States.

If state legislators are allowed to become worldview police, banning the Christian worldview from all but a narrowly circumscribed field of religious training, then society at large will suffer a great loss. The diversity of thought that has traditionally been so prized in American higher education will be banished, and higher education will increasingly become the handmaiden of a left-wing politicized bureaucracy. The logical end of such worldview-policing in the world of higher education is not diversity, but legally enforced conformity to the prevailing doctrine of the state and “public policy.” Freedom of speech will be downgraded to the freedom for pastors and ministry students to quietly whisper their beliefs in the back halls of Bible colleges and seminaries. And the idea of a Christian liberal arts university – an American tradition – will fade into oblivion.

The sad part is that most people will not notice until it is too late.


Steve Pettit was elected president of Bob Jones University in May 2014. He previously served 29 years as president of the Steve Pettit Evangelistic Association and conducted over 800 evangelistic campaigns throughout the United States and in more than 20 countries. Other prior positions included assistant pastor for youth ministry in Michigan, camp director of Northland Camp and Conference Center in Wisconsin and national director of Cross Impact Ministry in Colorado. Pettit holds a BS in Business Administration from The Citadel and an MA in Pastoral Studies from Bob Jones University.


**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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