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The Orange County Fairgrounds’ business dealings with a private religious university are under state investigation over a possible violation of anti-discrimination laws.

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing in a June 28 letter said it will look into the state-run fairgrounds’ sponsorship of Vanguard University, a Christian college in Costa Mesa condemned by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) advocates over the school’s views on gay people and same-sex relationships.

It’s illegal under California law for state agencies to give money to organizations that discriminate against people for their sexual orientation, marital status, or religion, among other things.

Students who violate Vanguard’s policies against same-sex relationships can be subject to disciplinary action, including expulsion, according to the university’s student handbook.

The school, located right across from the fairgrounds, is also affiliated with the Pentecostal Christian group known as Assemblies of God, which rejects homosexuality and gay marriage.

Fairgrounds spokesperson Terry Moore said in an email the state notified the fairgrounds that a complaint had been filed against it, and that “a response is in the works.”

Vanguard spokesman David Vazquez said in a statement the university currently doesn’t have any ongoing cash contracts with the fairgrounds. The last one, he said, ended December 31, 2018.

That contract says the fairgrounds paid $75,000 to the university under a sponsorship agreement where the school in exchange would cross-promote events, contribute advertising, and have their theatre program perform at the fair.

And although there’s no longer an ongoing written agreement between the state agency and Vanguard, the fairgrounds’ fiscal budget for this year has $25,000 carved out for the university under what it calls “community engagement” spending.

Between 1996 and 2011, the fairgrounds paid Vanguard a total of nearly $84,000 for the use of the school’s dormitories to “house entertainers, competition judges, etc.,” according to Moore.

In 2017, Moore said the fairgrounds also sponsored a holiday event at Vanguard, giving the university $5,000.

Added up, the fairgrounds has given the university a total of around $189,000 since 1996.

Vazquez referred all other questions “about OC Fair compliance with state regulations” — such as whether or not the fairgrounds is violating state law by giving money to a university accused of discrimination — to the fairgrounds.

The state investigation is in response to a written complaint filed by local activist and Fair Board watchdog Reggie Mundekis, who called for Vanguard to return all the money the school received from the fairgrounds.

Before starting investigations, state policy said it screens complaints in a process that includes an interview with the person filing the grievance, typically rejecting complaints that don’t substantially allege violations of the laws the Department of Fair Employment and Housing enforces.

In 2014, members of the local LGBTQ community criticized the Orange County Board of Supervisors for a partnership with Vanguard, arguing it violated the county’s nondiscrimination policy.

As part of the deal, Vanguard offered county employees a 10 to 25% reduced tuition rate in exchange for advertising on the county’s internal web communications. Under public scrutiny of the partnership, the university withdrew it later that year.

In an April 2018 blog post, Vanguard indicated it used some of the $75,000 from the fairgrounds to renovate its theater — an expenditure the contract didn’t specify.

And the university in its blog post also called its relationship with the fairgrounds a “partnership,” despite the fact there’s a clause in the $75,000 contract strictly calling it a sponsorship, and that it should not be deemed a joint venture or partnership.

The university at the time also called the money a “grant.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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