Messages and Media
President Gregg Chenoweth, Ph.D., recently testified to the Indiana Senate Judiciary Committee regarding Senate Enrolled Act 101, the religious freedom restoration act. Read more about the bill on the Indiana General Assembly website.
Here is Chenoweth’s testimony:
“Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, thank you for hearing my testimony in support of Bill 568. I am Gregg Chenoweth, President of Bethel College in Mishawaka. I represent 2,000 students and employees, 18,000 alumni and, more broadly, a cohort of 26 religiously affiliated independent colleges in the state with a combined annual economic impact of $4 billion and 21,000 employees.
“A Bill reinforcing religious liberty is important to Indiana. There is good reason 19 other state legislatures thought it important enough to install. Just as the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution required supplemental explication through the Civil Rights code, the First Amendment protecting religious freedom needs supplemental explication. Religious liberties are increasingly encroached upon in cases where the government does not appear to have a compelling interest -- from subpoenas of pastors’ sermons to suits against storefront owners who choose not to service clients for religious reasons to other developments more germane to places like mine.
“Why is Bill 568 relevant to my constituents? I only have time for three illustrations:
“First, probably only 10 percent of Christian colleges require a statement of faith as a pre-condition for admission. Bethel does not. We are quite happy to enroll Jews, Muslims and Atheists, provided they sign and honor a Lifestyle Covenant we believe essential to our religious mission. So, when a student expresses religious views heretical to the Christian faith, or even if they get pregnant or drunk or experience transition in sexual identity, our first move is not to expel, but to advocate the merits of our mission and arrange mentoring or support groups, which advance the optimistic resource of our faith. But here is what changed last year. President Obama issued an Executive Order, which subjects us to a Civil Rights claim if we prohibit a transgendered student from starting to use opposite-sex bathrooms, locker rooms or dormitories. To my mind, the government does not have a compelling interest in trumping the Lifestyle Covenant to which these students already committed. If our religious protocols agitate theirs, they can vote with their feet and use federal or state funds at another institution.
“Second, religious institutions already enjoy some exemptions from broader laws due to religious identity. For example, I am allowed to discriminate between employee candidates based upon religious criteria. However, the Affordable Care Act and National Labor Relations Board and other actions by various states to recognize Gay Marriage have already established, or are soon to establish, new protocols, which restrict our religious liberty based upon their judgment of whether we are religious enough. Here is what’s happening: I don’t think it is in the government’s interest to interfere with unionization negotiations for adjunct faculty based upon whether the college is denominationally affiliated or non-denominational. That isn’t a question of whether or not they are religious, but if they are religious enough. In another example, Spring Arbor University got an exemption from Obama’s Executive Order because they are denominationally affiliated, but Biola and Wheaton colleges are put on hold because they are non-denominational. I would rather the State focus on societal benefits of religious pluralism than decide whether an institution is religious enough. For example, I got a phone call from the press hours after Notre Dame decided to award same-sex health benefits, asking if we would do the same. I said, Bethel might decide not to act as they did on same sex benefits and act differently than them on contraceptive mandates. Both institutions are religiously defined. If Notre Dame and Bethel exercise our corporate conscience differently, that presents good options for employees and students to affiliate or reject association based upon either expression of Christianity. Don’t make me do what Notre Dame does because you think I am not religious enough.
“Finally, budget constraints now cause local, state and federal government to re-examine the tax code for religious organizations. Some proposals seek to tax the land of religious colleges like mine, charging fees for fire and police support, and reducing charitable deductions for donors to our institutions. Ironically, schools like mine provide a stronger return on investment by donors and the state than others. When an Indiana family gets a federal or Indiana grant, then chooses to spend it on Bethel or other independent colleges of Indiana, our students have a far lower default rate on loans, a higher graduation rate and a higher retention rate for first generation and ethnic minority students. To be specific, independent colleges in Indiana receive four percent of the state’s higher education spending, but produce one-third of all bachelor’s degrees in the state. The average cost per bachelor’s degree by the state for an independent college student is about $4,000, but $52,000 at the state’s public schools. Frankly, the government ought to shift state and federal funds toward the schools with stronger returns, not tax them more heavily.
“In summary, if the First Amendment was adequate, why did the federal government enact a bipartisan religious liberty bill in 1993? And if that action were enough, why do we still experience these threats to religious liberty at institutions with a pound-for-pound disproportionate public good? A vote for Bill 568 is not just a vote for religious accommodation or exemption, but for our historic commitment to religious pluralism. If my Christian college can’t succeed in drawing students and employees to our version of human flourishing, let the market decide if our ideas are so bizarre it can’t be sustained. Don’t permit the government to make us all look and act the same.
“I submit this testimony respectfully, and wish you success in governing our state well. Thank you.”