Maryland again denies aid to college

Officials cite Columbia Union’s ties to Seventh-day Adventist Church

By Jon Jeter

The Washington Post, December 14, 1994

Maryland education officials have turned down a request from a Takoma Park college for state aid, contending that the school’s close ties to the Seventh-day Adventist Church make it ineligible for government funding.

The decision this week by the state Board of Higher Education represented the third time since 1990 that Columbia Union College has been rejected for state aid such as that granted to other independent colleges, including Johns Hopkins and Loyola in Baltimore. After the board denied the school’s request for a second time in January, the school filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, and a federal judge directed the board to reconsider the application.

The board reached the same conclusion this week. Columbia Union has a “pervasive sectarian element,” said Jeff Welsh, a board spokesman, and giving it state aid would violate the separation of church and state provisions in state and federal law.

Maryland has for many years subsidized independent colleges, but it formalized the arrangement in 1971. This year, the state will provide independent colleges with about $31.5 million in aid, the largest chunk — about $12.7 million — going to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

But institutions with ties to the Roman Catholic Church, including Loyola and Notre Dame in Baltimore and Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, also receive funds. Columbia Union’s ties to the Seventh-day Adventist Church are much stronger than at those schools, state officials contend. None of the other colleges, for instance, receives funding directly from the Catholic Church.

Among the factors cited by the board in turning down Columbia Union were the college’s bylaws, which require that 34 of the 38 members of the board of trustees be members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and a requirement that students attend church services as a condition of enrollment. The college also receives about 21 percent of its funding directly from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Welsh said.

“Virtually every aspect of its operation is sectarian,” Welsh said.

Attorneys for the liberal arts school, which has an enrollment of about 1,200 students, contend that the state’s decision is discriminatory. The state program that provides grants to independent institutions is a neutral one, and Columbia Union should not be excluded, they said.

“This is an accredited institution, and there are very clearly secular as well as sectarian functions that are being performed very well by Columbia Union,” said R. Hewlett Pate, an attorney for the school. “We don’t think that’s the kind of inquiry that the government should be making, determining whether too much religion is being practiced there.”

The issue will be decided by a U.S. District Court judge next year.

Pate said that a two-year-old U.S Supreme Court ruling concluded that a college’s religious ties are not at issue in determining its eligibility for government funds available in a neutral program for a category of schools.

Because Columbia Union meets all other criteria and would not use any state money to subsidize students studying for the ministry, it should not be penalized because of a religious affiliation, Pate said.