Case Status: Victory

Columbia Union College v. Oliver

  • Federal Appellate Courts

A Touch Too Religious for Some

Columbia Union College v. Oliver remains one of CIR’s greatest victories for freedom of religion. CIR represented Columbia Union College, a small four-year school in Takoma Park, Maryland, with about 600 students, which was repeatedly excluded from a public grant designed to reduce the cost of tuition, because its Seventh-day Adventist composition made it “pervasively sectarian.” Or, in plain English, CUC was too religious for the tastes of state bureaucrats.

While other private institutions, including numerous Catholic colleges, were granted about $1,070 annually for each Maryland student enrolled, Columbia Union was denied grants at four consecutive hearings.

The hairsplitting distinctions that made the Maryland’s discriminatory funding decisions possible came from a 1976 Supreme Court decision, Roemer v. Board of Public Works, which permitted the government to provide financial assistance to religiously affiliated organizations as long as they were not “pervasively sectarian.”

With Roemer, the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause was turned completely on its head. A constitutional provision designed to keep government neutral toward the various religious denominations and organizations of the American people was instead interpreted to require state and local governments to choose which groups it would support based on their religious affiliation and identity.

A Return to Neutrality

In the following decades, the Supreme Court began to walk back its holdings in decisions like Roemer and restore government neutrality toward religion. CIR’s own 1995 Supreme Court victory in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia played a crucial role in pushing the court toward a position that more closely in line with the promise of religious non-discrimination that the Constitution guarantees. Rosenberger established that religious student organizations cannot be denied funding merely because they are religious.

In light of the Supreme Court’s holding in Rosenberger, CUC again tried to apply for funding, but the attorney general of Maryland as much as told the college that the state had no interest in allowing it to participate in the program: “Unless the nature and practices of Columbia Union College have changed very substantially since 1992, I do not believe that there would be any point in pursuing a new application for private aid at this time.”

In 1996 CIR helped Columbia Union take the case to a federal district court with direct action against Edward Oliver, a state official. CIR’s aim in Columbia Union was to extend this holding to religious higher educational institutions.

The decisive moment in the case came on June 26, 2001 when the 4th Circuit Court upheld an earlier ruling that CUC was not pervasively sectarian and therefore eligible for state funds. Furthermore, the court said that being “pervasively sectarian” was not a sufficient reason for denying state funding to a college.

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