Maryland found to infringe college's religious expression

Federal court says Columbia Union College must get state aid

Washington, D.C. – In a landmark victory for religious liberty and free speech, a federal judge ruled late yesterday that Maryland “infringed upon Columbia Union College’s free-speech rights” by denying state funds to the Seventh-day Adventist college “solely because of its religious viewpoint.”

Although Maryland’s Sellinger Program funds Catholic and other private colleges, the state contended that CUC was ineligible for the program, because it was allegedly “pervasively sectarian,” i.e.,too religious to receive government aid. U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Garbis rejected this argument. Although he noted that CUC proudly proclaims the importance of religious faith and practice on its campus, Judge Garbis found that “the primary goal and function of CUC is to provide a secular education.” Therefore, Judge Garbis ruled, direct government funding to CUC does not violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

Columbia Union College v. Oliver, which was on remand from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, has been closely watched across the nation, because of its potential impact on Establishment Clause analysis.

The case is particularly important because of “the high threshold of proof’ Judge Garbis established for denying funds to a religious college that otherwise meets the eligibility requirements of the aid program. “Church-affiliated colleges that receive state-funded grants on a neutral basis are presumed not to be pervasively sectarian,” Judge Garbis ruled.

“The high burden of proof is one reason this decision will surely be seen as another nail in the coffin of the ‘pervasively sectarian’ test,” said Curt Levey of the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), noting that a Supreme Court plurality rejected the test this June in Mitchell v. Helms.

CIR and lead counsel Hew Pate of Hunton & Williams have represented CUC since the case’s inception in 1996. The CUC decision also has broad implications for the relationship between academic freedom and religion, because academic freedom is one of the factors courts frequently analyze in assessing whether a school is pervasively sectarian.

Despite Maryland’s claims to the contrary, Judge Garbis found that “there is not a denial of academic freedom . . . because a college requires its faculty to follow the religious mission of the school.”