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Could conservative Christian colleges in the US be forced to hire gay staff and accept transgender students? Could someone who was originally a biological male end up being roommates with a woman? Those are the questions exercising the finest legal minds in California at the moment with the passage through the state legislature of two bills. Together, they amount to what conservatives say is an attack on religious liberty.
The transgender issue is really a thing in the US at the moment, isn't it?
Yes, oddly enough. North Carolina seems to be the focal point as it has passed legislation widely believed to be discriminatory, but other states are also pushing back against the Obama administration's drive for inclusivity. Conservative evangelicals have been at the forefront of attempts to make transgender people use lavatories appropriate to the gender on their birth certificates.
So Christians are in the firing line for pro-equality advocates?
That might well be argued, some might think. There are two bills going through California's legislature at the moment. Critics says they represent an extraordinary attack on religious freedom, while supporters argue they are aimed at protecting the rights of minorities.
And what's in these bills?
Assembly Bill 1888 would bar colleges from receiving state financial aid for their students on the basis of their "sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression". At present institutions with a religious foundation are allowed to opt out of anti-discrimination legislation on the basis of 'Title IX' exemption.
Senate Bill 1146 narrows the protections offered to Christian colleges down to coursework dealing specifically with religious education. It also requires institutions claiming Title IX exemption to display their reasons for doing so prominently throughout their campuses, to publish them on their websites and include them in induction programmes.
So this 'Title IX' exemption isn't really worth much?
The promoters of the California bills aren't arguing with Title IX as such, they just want to cut off state funding to institutions that have it in place. That's potentially a huge problem. According to one conservation law firm, Advocates for Faith and Freedom, the legislation "would essentially cripple colleges by forcing them to implement gay-friendly protections on campus or lose state and federal financial aid for students". It says: "The punitive laws would undermine federal protections that have long exempted religious colleges from adopting anti-discrimination laws that violate the tenets of their faith.
That does sound serious.
Advocates for Faith and Freedom cites an unnamed pro-family watchdog group as warning that "their passage would usher in Armageddon for those seeking higher education from a biblical perspective".
But does the biblical perspective mean we should discriminate against people?
Some would argue no, but it's not quite that simple. Conservative Christian colleges would argue that there are plenty of places where gay and transgender people can get an education, but that they ought to be free to run their institutions according to their values. So in its application for a Title IX exemption, for instance, Fresno Pacific University, a Mennonite foundation, says it has accepted gay students who are willing to abide by its values and it "affirms the dignity of all human beings regardless of gender". However, it adds: "In keeping with our biblical beliefs regarding the morality of actions, we cannot in good conscience support or encourage an individual to live in conflict with biblical principles in any area, including gender and gender identity."
That seems perfectly reasonable, if that's what they believe.
Quite, but what the California legislature has to decide is whether Californian tax dollars should be used to support institutions that discriminate against Californians, whether it's on religious grounds or not.
Indeed. So from a moral point of view, this is about the limits of freedom. There's an English proverb that says, "He who pays the piper calls the tune." In this case, some California lawmakers want to use the state's financial muscle to impose a particular orthodoxy on religious institutions whether they like it or not. Their supporters say people shouldn't be disadvantaged because of their sex or gender. Their opponents say there should be room for religious dissent in a liberal society, even if it costs the taxpayer money.
So where does it go from here?
If California does vote these bills through it's a very significant move. But it would be in keeping with the way the general tide is running at present. The Obama administration has sought to protect transgender students by warning that schools would have to agree not to discriminate against them in order to get federal funding. Conservative Christian institutions may be in for a difficult time.