Federal appeals court okays state aid for Maryland religious college

Key victory for government funding of faith-based entities

Washington, D.C. – In a landmark victory for religious liberty and government funding of faith-based entities, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday that “the State of Maryland infringed on Columbia [Union College’s] free speech rights by establishing a broad grant program . . . for private colleges but denying funding to Columbia Union solely because of its . . . religious viewpoint.” Although Maryland’s Sellinger Program funds Catholic and other private colleges, the State had argued that CUC – a Seventh-day Adventist school – was ineligible. Maryland claims that CUC is “pervasively sectarian,” i.e., too religious to receive government aid for even secular activities, such as CUC’s math and science courses. Yesterday’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirms the August 2000 decision of U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Garbis.

Citing the secular criteria of the Sellinger Program and the likelihood that CUC would not use any state funds for religious activities, the Fourth Circuit concluded that “Columbia Union’s use of Sellinger Program money to fund secular educational programs does not violate the strictures of the Establishment Clause.” The court emphasized that the “First Amendment requires government neutrality, not hostility, to religious belief.” Moreover, the court added that it cannot “find any reason even under a pervasively sectarian analysis why Columbia Union should be denied Sellinger Program assistance.”

Dr. Randal Wisbey, CUC’s President, said today that the college is “pleased and satisfied with the results of the decision handed down by the Fourth Circuit.” He added that “we continue to be mindful of the State of Maryland’s commitment to independent higher education, and we look forward to putting this matter behind us and moving forward.”

Columbia Union College is represented by the Center for Individual Rights (CIR) and Hunton & Williams in Richmond, Virginia. “The implications of the Fourth Circuit’s decision are far-reaching because it concludes that the pervasively sectarian doctrine has been replaced by a principle of ‘neutrality plus,'” explained Curt Levey, CIR’s Director of Legal & Public Affairs. Mr. Levey added that “this distinction is at the heart of the debate over President Bush’s faith-based initiative.” Levey called yesterday’s decision “a milestone in CIR’s successful efforts to advance the principle of neutrality towards religion,” noting that the decision cited CIR’s 1995 Supreme Court victory in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia for having emphasized neutral criteria in determining eligibility for aid.