The rights of the LGBTQ community in communities of faith are part of an ongoing conversation in the state.
California law, under the Equity in Higher Education Act and federal law under Title IX prohibit discriminatory policies at any institutions that receive state funding. This includes colleges, both public and private.
Currently, over 40 of the state's faith-based institutions take a religious exemption to these laws. But a California bill working its way through the Senate seeks to limit the number of colleges that qualify for exemptions. The bill, Senate Bill 1146, heads to a Senate appropriations committee Thursday.
If the bill becomes law, faith-based institutions will face a difficult choice: comply, or stop accepting money from the state in the form of Cal Grants.
For a deeper look, Take Two spoke with voices on both sides of the issue.
- Rev. Kevin Mannoia, campus chaplain at Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical Christian college here in Southern California.
- Elizabeth Cirelli, Azusa Pacific Alumni and member of the LGBTQ community
(Answers have been edited for clarity.)
Rev. Mannoia, your school has been very vocal about this bill. Many colleges, including your own, are lobbying to kill it. What's at stake for you?
The bill contains a lot of things that would limit religious freedom through Christian higher education and religious higher education.
It begins to limit our ability to hire people consistent with our faith values. Another major issue is the focus on student choice for students across the state. Currently, about 16,000 students take advantage of the Cal Grant program by taking those grants to religious or faith-based institutions.
Yesterday, (TUE) we received word that Senator Lara is planning to make some amendments to the bill to make it a disclosure-only bill. We're very grateful for that because at the root of this bill is a desire to make safe places for all students, and that's our commitment. We want to have a safe community for all of our students, irrespective of their choice or their identification, even the LGBTQ community.
Elizabeth, you went to Azusa Pacific University, class of 2011. One of the school's cornerstones is "community." You identify as gay. What stands out to you about your experience on the campus as a member of that community?
I think it was really interesting for a lot of folks like myself because we were looking for that community aspect. After a while, you start to realize that when you're true to yourself, you're not a part of this community, but more specifically, you're not really welcome to be a part of this community.
It's not something you can notice right away, but you're not allowed to hold positions of leadership, you're not allowed to be a resident advisor. One of the specific codes of conduct was you weren't allowed to hold hands with someone of the same sex. And so you're starting to go there, and you're like, 'Wow, I can't do this, I can't do that, I'm not welcome here, I'm not welcome there..."
You recently wrote a post on social media in response to statements made by your alma mater. In it you say:
"APU, you have betrayed those of us who looked for the love of God at your doorstep, because the prejudice and discrimination in your video and letter are the same prejudice that leads to the rape and murder of my community."
Elizabeth, those are some strong words. How do you justify those words?
I think with just the facts of the amount of hate crimes that we see going on against LGBT folks across this country, specifically and across the global community as well. In some other countries, being gay is punishable by death. When you look back, and you say 'How's this hatred and discrimination being propagated? How's this being furthered?' Faith-based communities are becoming this pillar for violence against the queer community.
All kinds of prejudice and discrimination, they start out at a fundamental mindset of being okay with this prejudice that you have towards another group of people. Anytime that you reinforce that through religion, you're giving justification to the foundation of that discrimination.
Kevin Mannoia, I know that those are really strong words for you to hear. What is your reaction when you hear a student that graduated from Azusa Pacific sharing those feelings?
First of all, I'm really sorry for the strain and the stress and the sense of offense that Elizabeth has experienced. At the root of what we try to do clearly is to try to represent our faith well. That means looking at every person as someone who is created in the image of God. At the very core of who we are as an institution, we firmly believe that. So when someone feels that kind of offense and that kind of prejudice, it burdens my heart. It grieves me because it says that somewhere along the line in our effort to reflect Christ something has gone amiss.
I also realize that fundamentally we also believe that God has created us in a way that is male and female, and in living out our faith, we try to put in place behaviors and practices that reflect that differentiation.
We're not a perfect community; we know that, and yet, we strive hard to make sure that people like Elizabeth are safe. If they have experienced discrimination on our campus, we want to provide recourse for them, and we want to move very quickly to address that.
As the bill is written now, if a faith-based institution accepts Cal Grants, they must comply with state discrimination laws. If this bill becomes law, will Azusa Pacific University turn down Cal Grants to keep the current policies in place?
Frankly, that is not something that the university has made a decision about at this point, but clearly, that's where the conversation has to continue. At what point does the university say no to funding, or do they say 'Alright, what do we need to do here to preserve the ability for these over 1,500 students to be able to come here?' We're not at that point of being able to say that this is the direction that we would go.
Update: The proposed bill was amended shortly after this conversation was taped Wednesday. Senator Lara, the author of the bill, has dropped several provisions from the bill, including the part about limiting religious exemptions. As it reads today, faith-based schools will only be required to disclose their exemptions to current and incoming students.
Press the blue play button to hear the interview as it aired.
Click the blue link below the play button for the full, unedited interview.