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Legislation Provides Clarity While Preserving Educational Diversity

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August 11, 2016

This week, SB 1146 (Lara, D-Bell Gardens) a bill that would have threatened the religious freedom of faith-based colleges and jeopardized higher educational opportunities for the tens of thousands of Californians they serve, has apparently been substantially amended to remove such questionable provisions.  The Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities lead the effort to revise and improve the bill and the California Catholic Conference will now be evaluating the changes.  Here’s some background:

A century and a half before George Washington was sworn in as our first President, Harvard College was founded.  It was the first university in America and it was started by Puritan clergy. 

Almost a hundred years later, Yale University was started, founded by Congregational clergy in Connecticut.

The first colleges and universities in California were started by faith-based entities. The Jesuits founded Santa Clara University and the Methodists starting the College (now University) of the Pacific in Stockton, both around 1851.  UC Berkeley didn’t begin until 1868.  UCLA opened more than 50 years later.

The point is that the earliest universities in this country and the first universities in California were all created by religious-minded people dedicated to spreading the light of knowledge and improving the lives of their community. The importance of these religiously affiliated schools is reflected in SB 1146, a bill by state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach) that would assist students applying for college better understand the differences between public, private and religiously-affiliated schools. This allows students to have a clear understanding of life on these campuses and allows them to make better decisions about where to go to college.

Religiously founded and affiliated universities are part of the rich and diverse fabric of California. William Jessup University, St. Mary’s College, and Santa Clara University are just some of the 42 colleges and universities in California that were founded or are operated in affiliation with churches and religious organizations. Nearly 90,000 students attend these institutions, just under half of all private university students in California. About 20 percent of those students are able to attend college because of Cal Grants or other state financial support.

The federal government recognizes the special character of these schools, and provides them with limited exemptions to federal law to enable them to hire faculty and recruit students who share their religious beliefs and wish to learn or teach within a framework that supports those beliefs.  Ensuring that incoming students understand the nature of these exemptions and fully appreciate the social, cultural and religious standards at these colleges is important to managing student and family expectations and maintaining their special character.

These colleges and universities exist today—and thrive—because they offer students a chance to succeed as both persons and professionals with the values and sensitivity necessary to fashion a more humane and just world. They are no less committed to higher education than any other public or private institution, but they offer that education in a religious setting, within a community of shared values, that is so necessary in today’s times. What they ask of the students who choose to attend is that they live or adhere to the standards of conduct that emanates from the religious beliefs of the founding institutions.

Moreover, diversity is a strength, not a weakness. In a higher education environment dominated by large public universities, it is vital to have room for smaller and different educational communities and philosophies.  Some people thrive at a 25,000 or 30,000 student college campus. Others would be lost and need the more personal attention and support that a smaller school linked to a faith tradition provides.  This is widely acknowledged, even among people who might personally prefer to attend public or unaffiliated private schools.

Every student who attends a religious-affiliated school should be able to live and learn in a safe environment and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.  That is without question.  But, what is also without question is that every student should be allowed to exercise his or her right to attend the university of their choice, consistent with the rules, regulations and community standards established by that institution. 

Respect for student choice and support for educational diversity is good for students and good for California.