Suit seeking state money for college thrown out

Seventh-day Adventists, Columbia Union linked

By Dennis O’Brien

The Baltimore Sun, October 31, 1997

A federal judge has ruled that the Maryland Higher Education Commission did not discriminate when it denied state subsidies to a religious college in Montgomery County because the college’s operations are too closely intertwined with its affiliated denomination.

Judge Marvin J. Garbis threw out a suit Tuesday filed by Columbia Union College in Takoma Park after it was denied $750,000 in state subsidies by the commission last year.

I’m glad the judge agreed with us and that the opinion was so strongly worded,” Patricia S. Florestano, Maryland secretary of higher education, said after she learned of the ruling yesterday.

Private colleges in Maryland receive about $1,070 annually for each Maryland student enrolled as part of a 26-year-old state subsidy program known as the Father Sellinger Program, named for the late president of Loyola College in Baltimore.

More than $31 million was appropriated under the program to private Maryland campuses this year, according to a commission spokesman.

But Columbia Union, which is affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, filed suit in June 1996 after the commission denied requests for funds.

Commission lawyers determined after a review of the college’s operations that it was pervasively sectarian,” according to Garbis’ ruling.

Garbis said the commission was correct in denying the funding because of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibitions against state funds becoming entangled in the functions of a church.

Garbis ruled that the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits state funds to pervasively sectarian” institutions, applied to Columbia Union.

Its religious components are so inextricably intertwined with its secular aspects that, under the Establishment Clause, it may not receive any direct state funding,” Garbis wrote in a 25-page ruling.

He also ordered the college to pay the state’s court costs.

The college receives about one-quarter of its funds from the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Students are required to participate in religious services, employment preferences are given to church members and 36 of the 40 full-time faculty members are Seventh-day Adventists, according to Garbis’ ruling.

Faculty members also are evaluated in part on whether they stress Christian values and philosophy in the classroom, according to the opinion.

Charles Scriven, Columbia Union president, said yesterday that he wanted to confer with the college’s lawyers before commenting on the case.