It’s a mysterious case of a political committee: hundreds of thousands of dollars, an apparent vanishing act, and PLNU’s name in the middle of it.
In February, Senate Bill 1146 was introduced into the California Legislature. Since then, it has become a very heated topic in Christian higher education.
The bill was sponsored by California Senator Ricardo Lara and was intended to address discrimination against LGBTQ students at faith-based institutions.
The original version made three primary changes for Christian universities:
First, religious exemptions in California would only apply to programs preparing students for ministry.
Second, if an institution received a federal or state exemption for anti-discrimination legislation, they would be required to disclose those exemptions to current and prospective students.
Finally, LGBTQ students would have legal grounds to sue an institution if they could prove they were discriminated against by an institution.
Before the bill left the committee, it had been amended several times but still retained those three primary provisions. SB1146 was read on the floor of the assembly at the end of May.
Immediately, Christian schools and universities began firing back at the bill. On June 8th, Biola University issued a statement to its community saying SB1146 would “eliminate religious liberty in California higher education, as we know it today.”
Additional institutions were quick to condemn the limitations of the bill. Statements, articles, and opinion pieces were written by leaders at Fresno Pacific University, William Jessup University, Life Pacific College, Concordia University, Vanguard University, and many others.
These statements urged their communities to fight the bill because it restricted religious liberties and targeted religious institutions.
Supporters of the bill argued the reason only religious institutions were targeted was because non-religious institutions are already bound by anti-discrimination legislation.
In the heat of these comments, the California legislature took their summer recess, and several religious schools used this time to form an association to fight the bill.
Public documents show the Association of Faith Based Institutions was founded on July 27th, 2016, one week before the Senate reconvened. It was created by Gould and Orellana, a self-described campaign finance firm in Long Beach, California.
In the days that followed, the association received more than $370,000 in donations from 8 faith based institutions. The filings with the State of California showed donations from 8 schools.
- Azusa Pacific University donated $70,000
- California Baptist University donated $42,000
- Concordia University donated $50,000
- Life Pacific College donated $18,000
- Masters College donated $40,000
- Point Loma Nazarene University donated $50,000
- Vanguard University donated $40,000
- William Jessup University donated $40,000
PLNU’s Director of Public Affairs Jill Monroe said the purpose of the organization was, “to target legislators in the state of California in order to convey our concerns with SB1146, and the specific concerns we had in regard to CalGrant access, opportunity, and choice for California students.”
With hundreds of thousands of dollars, the newly founded association seemed a fearsome beast and was quickly reported on by several major news organizations in California.
The final set of donations was filed on August 2nd, and the California Senate resumed on the 3rd. After one day of discussion in committee, the bill was amended to phase in a disclosure of religious exemptions after one year, and the third provision of the bill was removed, effectively protecting religious universities from LGBTQ discrimination lawsuits.
On August 23rd, the bill was sent to the floor without the lawsuit provision, and the Association of Faith Based Institutions appeared to vanish.
The official state filing said the “Statement of Organization was submitted in error” and it “never intended to engage in campaign contribution activity.” The termination filing said previous contribution reports were in error and “this organization did not receive any campaign contributions.”
The Point reached out to Gould and Orellana for comment on this story but did not receive any response.
Despite its apparent termination, the association still exists, but no longer is incorrectly listed as a Super PAC. It is led by the presidents of member institutions and chaired by Azusa Pacific President Jon Wallace.
The $370,000 was used to send direct mailers about the bill to California residents and fund a radio campaign.
Monroe says the bill showed Christian schools that they needed a way to make their views heard.
“Senate bill 1146 did definitely wake up our universities to the need to tell our story, and brought clearly to the forefront that universities like APU, PLNU, Biola are not understood in California’s state capitol.”
Monroe also says the association has met its initial goal of voicing the opinions of Christian universities on SB1146 but will continue to exist, even as its new goal has yet to be determined.
PLNU’s involvement in the fight against SB1146 has created strong reactions from the LGBTQ community, current students, and alumni.
PLNU is now listed on Campus Pride’s “Shame List” because of its donation to “dismantle” SB1146.
Kendra Peterson is a PLNU alumnus, and was co-founder of the safe space group Voices of Love.
When asked about PLNU’s involvement in fighting SB1146, Peterson said, “Something that is deeply heartbreaking to me as a queer person born and raised in the church is that all too often when Christians are fighting for their religious freedom, what this really means is that they are fighting for their right to do things that are deeply harmful to LGBTQ+ people.”
Another alumnus, and founding member of Voices of Love, is Adam Donason who says some people feel that loving people with other lifestyles is bad for their spiritual walk. “We think that perhaps if I were to love this ‘other,’ I would also be rejected, and the irony of it all is that this is exactly what the Christ both did and asked of us in remembrance.”
The bill’s sponsor, Senator Ricardo Lara, said it was an effort to make discrimination against LGBTQ individuals much harder to commit.
Lara spoke in support of the bill on the Senate floor, saying, “These universities have a license to discriminate, and students have absolutely no recourse.”
The bill has now passed the California Legislature and has been presented to California Governor Jerry Brown to sign.