Rules Are for Schmucks: Disappointment in California

The CA State Capitol Legislature meeting room

It isn’t often that a serious politician defies the God lobby head on. There are gadflies now and then, for whom we can all be grateful. And there are plenty of me-tooers once a sensible idea begins to gather steam. But when a mainstream elected official says, “This particular emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, and I’m going to do something about it” and gets his sensible idea passed through one house of a legislature, it’s worth a double-take.

Until he caves, anyway.

State Sen. Richard Lara of California shares the view of most Americans that it’s long past time to end discrimination against women and against LGBTQ Americans. Most Americans, that is, other than those who insist they have a contrary instruction from God. These folks have enough money and enough political pull that back in 1972 when Title IX was enacted, banning sex discrimination in American higher education, they got an exemption for religious colleges.

Sen. Lara looked at this exemption and realized that as a mere state senator there was nothing he could do about a federal law. Then again, maybe there was. After all, California spends a ton of taxpayer money to help send students to these institutions that thumb their noses at Title IX and all it stands for. Why?

So he introduced S.B. 1146 in the state senate earlier this year. The main thrust of the bill was to deny Cal Grants, one of the principal California scholarship programs, to students at religious colleges that choose to avail themselves of the religious exemption under Title IX.

To be clear: any California religious college that wants to punish people—including employees as well as students—in any manner it can imagine for being women, gay, transgender, or whatever, would be absolutely free to continue to do so, to its heart’s content. The only thing it could not do would be to continue to receive millions of dollars from California taxpayers, most of whom find that kind of discrimination utterly repugnant.

That sounds easy, doesn’t it? Members of the California senate thought so. They passed the bill on a 26-13 vote.

Then all hell broke loose. Why, if California stops subsidizing hate, other states might do so as well! The God industry gravy train might screech to a halt!

National organizations started jumping all over Sen. Lara’s little bill. Example: “The bill would essentially outlaw religious schools,” wrote Molly Scheer in The Federalist. Really? Not paying for something is “outlawing” it? The government is outlawing my dinner tonight by making me pay for it myself?

Religious colleges quickly assembled a war chest of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not too difficult, really, considering the risk to the tens of millions of taxpayer subsidies they’re accustomed to raking in that Sen. Lara was endangering. Then, because they’re smart, they didn’t spend it in Sen. Lara’s district. Instead, they targeted members of the legislature’s appropriations committee with intentionally misleading flyers screaming, “Stop state control of private education!”

My uninformed conjecture is that Sen. Lara has some boondoggle project or other for his district that he needs the appropriations committee to back. That’s the way the sordid game is played, and God lobbyists with money on the line are unquestioned masters of the game. Anyway, next thing you know, Lara is agreeing to an amendment that completely guts his bill. All reference to denying taxpayer subsidies to schools that discriminate is deleted, replaced by a lame proposal to require discriminatory schools to disclose their exemption from Title IX, something the federal government is already doing.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Lara’s sniveling cowardice. He did say he isn’t finished studying the issue yet, and maybe he means it. But here’s a question for him, or for anyone else who is truly interested in pursuing the matter further:

Why is California subsidizing religious colleges at all, whether or not they demand the privilege to thumb their noses at the civil rights laws everyone else has to follow?

California doesn’t subsidize religious grade schools, either directly or indirectly through vouchers like Cal Grants. Other than the fact that lots of academics get cushy jobs at Christian schools, what makes colleges more worthy of a place at the public trough than grade schools?

The case against public money for religious schools was first made by James Madison in his “Memorial and Remonstrance” of 1785, which was specifically targeted against “A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion.” Madison wrote,“Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.”

The case was repeated by Thomas Jefferson in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions, which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”

Neither one drew any distinctions between taxpayer support for the proselytizing of nine year olds versus taxpayer support for the proselytizing of nineteen year olds.

I don’t claim to hold a candle to either Jefferson or Madison, but my attitude is similar. My money should not be used to promote the idea that I deserve to be tortured, in hell, purgatory, or anywhere else. If you want to say I do deserve it, fine. Have at it. Maybe you’re right! But don’t do it with my money.

As a California sales tax payer, that’s exactly what’s happening to me now. My money was taken from me and put into a big pot, part of which is directed by California students to California religious colleges, which spew the most brutal vitriol against nonbelievers like me. Especially against uppity nonbelievers who commit the unpardonable sin of objecting to taxpayer religious subsidies. We’re the worst of the bunch.

So, Sen. Lara, here’s my advice for you. Free! It’s clear that a lot of money changed hands to block your bill when it simply said that religious colleges wanting subsidies have to obey the same laws as everybody else. I don’t know whether you got any of that money or not. But think how much money would start flying around if someone—like you—introduced a bill to carry out Jefferson’s and Madison’s dream of true government neutrality on religion, by ending Cal Grants for all religious colleges, period.

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