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California forces Christian college employees to undergo gender identity training at odds with faith

With freedom of conscience at risk, Council for Christian Colleges and Universities remains on sidelines.

Published: April 7, 2021 7:07pm

Updated: April 8, 2021 3:12pm

When several Christian colleges sued to stop the Obama administration's proposed contraceptive mandate in 2013, their trade association briefly had their back.

Forcing faith-based institutions to cover abortifacient drugs under the Affordable Care Act threatens "the religious liberty of all people and the entire nation," Edward Blews, then-president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, told the feds. When the final rule was released a few months later, however, the CCCU was reportedly silent

Several years later, not only the CCCU but some of its highest profile members are staying quiet about another potential infringement of their religious liberty: California's required employer training on gender identity and sexuality.

A student at Pepperdine University law school provided Just the News with the part-time employee training she was required to complete last month, as well as her communications with Pepperdine officials, including her dean. 

Alexandra Boutelle complained in particular about a video whose "assertions on gender and sexuality could not be more contrary to the Bible and to Pepperdine's own statement on sexual relationships.

The university, which is historically affiliated with the Churches of Christ, told her it didn't have any leeway to revise the training required by the state under Senate Bill 1343.

Signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2018, the law requires employers with five or more employees to provide "sexual harassment training" to those employees by Jan. 1, 2020 and every two years thereafter. Training must happen within six months of hire. (A subsequent law pushed back the first deadline by a year.)

Training must also cover "harassment based on gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation." It does not provide any religious accommodations. The Department of Fair Employment and Housing is responsible for providing online interactive courses that employers can use to fulfill their obligations.

While employers can also offer third-party training or design their own, the law has no mechanism for reviewing non-state training for compliance with its requirements, a department spokesperson told Just the News. The department neither approves training providers nor vets outside training before employers can use it, she said, pointing to its FAQ page. It only reviews complaints alleging that employers didn't comply with the training requirements.

The CCCU told Just the News it was not "directly involved" with reviewing the bill language or lobbying for religious carveouts before it became law, or with its California members' implementation of the law in their campus training. It did not answer a followup asking whether any of those members asked the council to get involved.

Just the News also reached out to Pepperdine and three other California CCCU members — Los Angeles County's Biola University, San Diego's Point Loma Nazarene University and Santa Barbara's Westmont College — over the past two weeks.

Only Biola responded. A spokesperson said it chose a third-party training that is "customizable in terms of allowing to add letters, policies and videos to the training as needed." University leadership prefaced the training with a letter "explaining and reiterating the university's theological stance on the topics included in the training."

Unlike the official state training, the Biola training requires a campus login to view, she said. The university would have preferred to create its own training, but that "wasn't possible due to financial/time constraints."

'No matter how you identify, you deserve to be believed and respected'

Pepperdine's student employment office notified law school employees March 18 that they were required to complete the official state training as a condition of their continued employment. It gave them eight days and said it wouldn't accept any other sexual harassment training.

A March 24 reminder from the office prompted Boutelle, the law student who contacted Just the News, to take the one-hour course.

"I understand that this training is required by the state of California but I was appalled at the content that I was required to watch and affirm through the questions in order to continue as a student employee," she wrote to officials in charge of the training.

The student asked for an alternative to the four-minute video at the end of the course, which was created by the New York City Commission on Human Rights and a theater troupe. It starts with two instructors explaining to a skeptical audience how gender is relevant to them.

When people are born, "society defines them by looking at their reproductive organs and labels them male or female," an instructor says. "It's a girl!" an actress says when shown a sonogram. "Well, actually it's more complicated than that," the instructor responds, and the video goes on to explain gender identity and gender expression.

Another actor is cradling a baby swaddled in a blue blanket, when a grandmotherly woman enters the frame and coos, "Aww, it's a boy!" A transgender woman promptly corrects her. "Um, no," the transgender woman responds, pulling away the blue blanket to reveal a pink one.

A transgender man and non-binary people then explain their identities, and the video explains why gender and sexuality are "completely different categories."

"Bottom line, you understand your identity better than anyone else," a presenter says. "No matter how you identify, you deserve to be believed and respected," another concludes.

Twitter has 'temporarily restricted' her account for two weeks

Boutelle asked the university to provide an accommodation so that "no Christian student is required to betray his or her convictions in order to keep a job at a university that should be upholding his or her faith, not requiring training like this." 

Director of Student Employment Shelly Bowman responded that employees had to take this specific training to remain in compliance with state law. She gave Boutelle a transcript of the training to "avoid having to view any of the content you have described." (The Department of Fair Employment and Housing spokesperson said reading a transcript without an "effective interactive training" does not satisfy the law.)

The transcript does not mention the video but discusses gender identity and expression. It includes an example and quiz about a transgender employee, one of whose colleagues continues to treat her as a man. "Kay" has a claim against the colleague and the company for the "negative comments and purposeful, repeated use of the wrong name and pronouns."

Pepperdine employees have to watch the full training, including the theater-troupe video, to take a screenshot of the final page as required, Boutelle told Just the News: "There's no way to skip or fast-forward" in the presentation. Asked why the video was required if it's not included in the transcript, Bowman told Boutelle the transcript was intended for employees with auditory or visual disabilities.

Upon completing the training, Boutelle notified prominent conservatives on Twitter, including Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, that California was forcing employees to "betray their convictions and answer questions rejecting basic biology in favor of the transgender movement."

People who are LGBTQ+ are "created in the image of God" like everyone else, Boutelle clarified in a tweet, explaining she only wants to be able to "freely express" her disagreement with their characterization of sex "in a civil way without being fired or 'canceled.'"

Boutelle told Just the News that Twitter quickly locked her out of her account, possibly because she triggered a bot response by tagging several accounts. Two weeks later, Twitter still marks her account "temporarily restricted," though it can be viewed.

She said she also contacted the CCCU, which told her it would look into the training, and her dean, the tax law expert Paul Caron. Boutelle called him a "committed Christian and great leader" whom she believed "would be distressed by this requirement." 

Caron responded to Boutelle April 2 after ignoring queries from Just the News. She called his response "disappointing."

The dean said he had studied the legal requirements, and the training is "indeed mandatory of student workers at Pepperdine and there is no exception for Christian universities."

Caron didn't explain why Pepperdine declined to choose a training that better aligns with its institutional beliefs on gender and sexuality. He said the training was created by the state, which included the "What Is Gender" video Boutelle protested because it covers gender identity and expression as required by state employment law.

"You are a valued and important member of our community, and I know this is not the answer you were hoping for," Caron told Boutelle, suggesting she contact another official with further questions.

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