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LA MIRADA, Calif.—The day Baylee Acosta walked around the sunny campus of Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., she knew she had to apply. The school hadn’t even been on her list of prospective colleges: It’s not in the best area, and tuition fees alone cost $37,000 per year. The only reason she was on a campus tour was because her then-boyfriend had “dragged” her. But as she walked around Biola’s campus, something about “the presence” changed her mind. Somehow, she felt that God was calling her to Biola. Acosta’s ex-boyfriend ended up not choosing Biola—but Acosta applied and enrolled.
However, Acosta did hesitate for a moment when she read the section in Biola’s doctrinal statement on biblical marriage, which the school defines as a “faithful, heterosexual union between one genetic male and one genetic female” and the “only legitimate and acceptable context for a sexual relationship.” Acosta, who by then had realized she felt attracted to females in a way she never did with her previous boyfriends, had one concern: “OK, even if they don’t condone same-sex relationships, is this school somewhere I can at least talk about what I’m experiencing?”
Now a senior majoring in psychology, Acosta has talked about her experiences onstage, in Bible studies, with staff and faculty. During her second semester, she “came out” gay after Biola hosted panels of Christians—such as Wesley Hill—also struggling with same-sex attraction. Pre-Biola, Acosta had never met a fellow believer who struggled with the questions she has and understood exactly how she feels.
Over the last five years, Biola has worked to create an environment where students and faculty can examine what it means to be a healthy, sexually faithful follower of Christ. Biola has maintained its biblical position that sexual relations are proper only within a marriage of one man and one woman, but instead of expelling Acosta for identifying as gay (while sexually inactive), Biola invited her and other students to probe hard questions about human sexuality. The school hosted forums among Christians with contrasting viewpoints and developed a human sexuality task force. It is launching a program in which students discuss homosexuality with professors who adhere to biblical convictions.
A CALIFORNIA SENATE BILL ALMOST CHANGED ALL THAT. Senate Bill 1146 sought to narrow the exemption religious colleges have from state nondiscrimination policies, even when those policies conflict with the school’s religious beliefs. Had the bill passed in its previous version, it would have taken away state funding and state student aid from religious colleges that adhere to their religious tenets, such as determining student conduct codes and hiring faculty. Biola’s legal counsel Jerry Mackey said that in his 30 years at Biola, he’s “never seen anything nearly as serious as this as far as the state trying to impose its moral code on religious institutions.”
Biola and other schools narrowly dodged that bullet on Aug. 10, when bill sponsor Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat, removed the most problematic sections of SB 1146. The current amended bill no longer seeks to strip away the exemption of religious schools to anti-discrimination laws, but still requires schools to disclose their exempt status from nondiscrimination laws, and adds that they must notify the state each time they expel a student for violating their moral code of conduct.
Lara’s decision to amend the bill came after months of vocal opposition from not just California religious colleges but other religious institutions and leaders nationwide. Alarmed colleges formed the Association of Faith-Based Institutions to advocate in the public sphere for faith-based higher education. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission announced a multi-faith statement opposing SB 1146 that included signatures from pastors, college administrators, and academic and legal scholars of diverse theological, political, and ethnic groups.
But the popular narrative that religious schools are mistreating LGBT students remains, evident in Lara’s statement: “With SB 1146, we shed light on the appalling discriminatory practices LGBT students face at private religious universities in California. These provisions represent critical first steps in the ongoing efforts to protect students from discrimination for living their truths or loving openly.”
The war is not over: Lara says he wants to use this break to “really study this issue further,” and he plans other legislation next year that might include the controversial provisions he has dropped. On the positive side, this recent development means religious colleges have gained some time to address better the senator’s concerns and misunderstandings about the way religious schools operate.
One point religious colleges have tried to make clear to California legislators is the broader effects the unmodified SB 1146 would have had on the entire operation and nature of the schools. “It’s a tightening of a vise,” Biola President Barry Corey said. “It feels like the government is reaching into the affairs of faith-based institutions, picking and choosing what they like and don’t like. … But to say this part is OK and that part isn’t OK, that’s just not how we roll. We are fundamentally and profoundly religious.”
So it’s not too soon to begin imagining what a Christian institution like Biola University would look like five or 10 years from now, should another similarly threatening bill pop up.
FIRST, LET’S START WITH THE PEOPLE SB 1146 CLAIMS TO PROTECT. What will happen to the future Baylee Acostas who struggle with their sexual orientation or gender identity? Acosta says without Biola’s code of conduct holding her back, she might currently be dating a woman. As someone still grappling to hear God’s voice on this issue, the strong emotional pull of that relationship might affect the way she processes her thoughts and convictions. She would also lose the round-the-clock community challenging, enriching, and sharpening of her viewpoints on sex and marriage.
The bill would affect her career options as well. Acosta dreams of becoming a psychology professor at a private Christian school like Biola because she wants to “give back to something that has been so wonderful in my life.” But now she worries that such institutions would cease to exist or downsize because of SB 1146 and wonders if the bill would “cause more problems than fix.” In effect, the very bill that seeks to empower LGBT students would rob them of choices and a safe place where they can ask tough questions—without having to jettison their faith.
Now, let’s take a stroll around the Biola campus, a sun-speckled hub of red-bricked buildings, green lawns, and palm trees. At its heart sits Metzger Lawn, a lush green patch situated between the Calvary Chapel and the library. As one student described to me, students walking out of the chapel with their Bibles will be facing the library, a reminder that they’re here to learn. Meanwhile, textbook-lugging students leaving the library will immediately spot the cross on the white chapel and remember that they’re also here to learn about God. It’s these two components—faith and learning—that first attracted many students like Zoe Lee to Biola.
Lee is a senior majoring in sociology and a Chinese-Canadian foster child who’s dependent upon state grants and loans to pay her tuition. She remembers the “culture shock” of visiting Biola as a high schooler: There on the grass sits a group studying the Bible together, here by the Flour Fountain perch students praying out loud—and is that a hymn trilling out of a classroom? She remembers walking past the tinkling fountain and gaping up at the famous (and controversial) 30-foot mural of Jesus holding out a Bible painted onto the wall of a science building.
As a lifelong public schooler, the campus visit was the first time Lee saw students worshipping and praying in public without fear of ridicule or judgment. The day she received the fat acceptance letter from Biola, she burst into joyful tears and spent a sleepless night envisioning her next four years. Her first three years, she said, “was better than I imagined it to be.” Last year, when Lee was worrying about finding an apartment and a car, her professor and classmates prayed for her before anthropology class, and soon she was sharing answered prayers.
LET US NOW ZOOM INTO SEVERAL YEARS AFTER another bill like SB 1146 is enacted: Since the bill would prevent schools from admitting students according to their religious beliefs, the student demographic at Biola would gradually tilt toward the secular. That means scenes of students praying and discussing theology in courtyards and classrooms would become less common. Dorm life and traditions would change. Hymns and prayers in calculus class with the professor may retreat to Wednesday campus fellowship nights. And one day, the Jesus mural would fossilize into an artifact of bygone eras like the cross on the ironwork gate at Harvard University.
The bill would also have a profound impact on the classrooms. Let’s enter communications professor Tim Muehlhoff’s favorite class, an upper-level elective on gender, culture, and communication. Today, Muehlhoff walks into class knowing that all of his students are professing Christians, that they are all Bible minors, that most of them want an orthodox understanding of the Bible to be infused into their education. He freely quotes Scriptures and weaves his personal walk with Christ into his teachings.
HERE’S THE ALTERNATIVE SCENARIO: Five years from now Muehlhoff would walk into that same classroom and draw lots of blanks: Who’s Christian, who’s not? Who’s going to bristle when he refers to the Bible in class? Will a Bible-believing student feel pressured to self-censor while discussing controversial topics on gender and sexuality? Because he won’t know the depth of biblical knowledge and convictions among his students, he’ll have to slow the pace of his teaching and cut out some material. “In essence,” he said, “my class will become a secular classroom—which is fine, but it won’t be Biola.”
Muehlhoff, who received a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Michigan University and master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, fears that a bill like the unmodified SB 1146 would affect the entire quality of California’s education system, turning diverse institutions into little more than assembly-line factories: “I’m just afraid Biola will become a watered-down Eastern Michigan University with Cru. … I want Berkeley to be Berkeley. Well, let us be Biola.”
Since President Corey says Biola will never betray its biblical convictions and foundations, here’s another scenario: Biola will have to reject about $7.5 million in state grants that students receive each year. Cal Grant recipients make up one-fifth of Biola’s undergraduate student body, and about 60 percent of those recipients are minority students.
Geoff Marsh, senior director of financial aid, said lower-income families would face a dilemma: Take more federal loans, or choose a public school. For the many students who currently receive about $9,000 of Cal Grants per year, that’s asking them to come up with almost $40,000 more for their education. “The bill will definitely impact many students’ ability to attend,” Marsh said.
Such a drop in student enrollment would raise tough questions with no happy answers: How would losing state aid affect the school’s economic and ethnic diversity? With the drastic budget cut, what programs and services would Biola have to let go? Would it have to increase tuition fees to make up for the loss? A large, well-endowed university like Biola would probably survive, but how many smaller institutions would cease to exist 10 or 20 years later? What kind of precedent would the California bill set for other states—and what would that portend for American society?
For students like Lee, who has aged out of the foster care system, the questions get more personal: Where would she be now had she not attended Biola? “After graduating high school, I didn’t know where to go, I wasn’t sure who I was, what I wanted to do. I was so lost. … It’s scary to think where I would be if not for Biola.”