Supreme Court denies review of school funding decision
- The U.S. Supreme Court announced on June 14 that it will not accept for review Columbia Union College’s appeal of a lower court order requiring an investigation into its religious practices as a condition of receiving state higher education assistance. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion, rare in cases where review is denied.
- CUC will continue its legal challenge of Maryland’s discriminatory treatment of religious institutions. The case now goes back to the District Court, which must decide how to conduct the hearing ordered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. CUC may have the opportunity at a later stage in the case to again bring its First Amendment challenge of Maryland’s funding policies to the U.S. Supreme Court.
- Columbia Union College is a Seventh-day Adventist school located in Takoma Park, Maryland. CUC was denied funds under Maryland’s “Father Sellinger Program,” which provides state support for private colleges and universities, many of which are church-affiliated. CUC sought Sellinger funds for its core educational programs, including its mathematics, computer science, clinical laboratory science, respiratory care and nursing programs.
- Maryland contends that unlike other church-affiliated colleges that receive Father Sellinger Funds, CUC is “pervasively sectarian,” and therefore ineligible for state assistance under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. See Columbia Union College v. Clark (District Court Decision – “Background”), 988 F. Supp. 897 (D. MD 1997)
- CUC argues that the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment prohibits government officials from inquiring into its religious practices in order to determine whether it is or is not “pervasively sectarian.” CUC’s Petition for Certiorari, Section I
- CUC contends that where a funding program is neutral toward religion, provides funding on the basis of student attendance decisions rather than governmental discretion, and contains safeguards to ensure that program funds are used for secular program purposes, the requirements of the Establishment Clause are met. Further official investigation into CUC’s religious practices is unnecessary and unconstitutional. See CUC’s Petition for Certiorari, Section II
- If the U.S. Supreme Court grants review, it will offer the Court an opportunity to clarify older Establishment Clause cases, such as in Roemer v. Board of Public Works of Maryland, 426 U.S. 736 (1976) (which previously upheld the participation of four Catholic colleges in the “Father Sellinger Program”) and newer Free Exercise Clause cases. See CUC’s Petition for Certiorari, Section II
- Newer cases, such as the landmark Rosenberger v. Rector and Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995) (also litigated by CIR), hold that excluding church-affiliated entities from neutral, government funded programs violates the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment.
- After being denied funding, CUC brought suit in Federal District Court, which entered summary judgment in favor of Maryland. The District Court held that religion was so pervasive at Columbia Union that its secular and religious aspects were “inextricably intertwined,” so that its secular functions could not be separated from its religious ones. See Columbia Union College v. Clark, 988 F. Supp. 897 (D. MD 1997)
- On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the exclusion of CUC from the Father Sellinger Program violated its Free Speech, Free Exercise, and Equal Protection rights. See, Columbia Union College v. Clark, 159 F.3d 151 (4th Cir. 1998)(“Section II”)
- The Court of Appeals concluded, however, that in light of “the direct applicability of Roemer,” allowing a pervasively sectarian college to participate in the Sellinger Program would violate the Establishment Clause. The court held that avoiding this Establishment Clause violation was a compelling governmental interest that was sufficient to “justify an infringement on Columbia Union’s free speech rights See Columbia Union College v. Clark, 159 F.3d 151 (4th Cir. 1998)(“Section III”)
- The Court of Appeals remanded the case for a thorough, on-campus evaluation of CUC’s religious practices. The majority stated that the necessary inquiries were “complex, elusive, and heavily fact intensive,” and required direct evidence of the college’s practices to “determine whether religious indoctrination pervades the institution.”See, generally, “Section IV” of the Court of Appeals ruling, Columbia Union College v. Clark, 159 F.3d 151 (4th Cir. 1998)
- For example, the panel indicated the need for “faculty testimony” to determine whether the faculty “taught without fear of religious pressures in classroom presentations.” The panel demanded evidence on whether religious motivations had been considered during faculty hiring and student admissions. Over the objection of both Columbia Union and the State, the panel demanded investigation and fact-finding on whether the “school crafts its teachings based on religious principles of the Seventh Day Adventist Church” and whether “the college’s religious mission impinged too greatly on its academic freedom.”
- In dissent, Chief Judge Harvey Wilkinson characterized the majority as ordering a “relentless inquisition into the religious practices of Columbia Union, its teachers, and its students. To obtain funding, Columbia Union will have little choice but to mold itself to an exhaustive template of “nonsectarianness,” jettisoning in the process many of the beliefs and practices that it holds most dear.”
- CUC immediately challenged the remand order by filing a petition for Writ of Certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court. CUC contends that a judicially supervised investigation of this nature itself violates the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment, in that it requires government officials to make judgments about and distinctions between the religious practices of different church-affiliated schools.
- The State of Maryland has urged the Supreme Court not to grant review, on the grounds that undertaking a court supervised review of CUC’s religious practices is not overly intrusive and does not violate the Free Exercise clause. See, Defendants’ Brief in Opposition to Petition for Writ of Certiorari.
- Columbia Union College serves a broad range of students, with 16 majors leading to a bachelor of arts and 17 leading to a bachelor of science degree. The College has been accredited since 1942 as a four year, degree-granting institution by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools.
- In addition to providing quality education, the College presents a distinct viewpoint among the wide variety of Maryland colleges and universities. As stated in the College’s Bulletin: “The heart of Columbia Union College is a Christocentric vision that affirms the goodness of life, the value of earth, and the dignity of all peoples and cultures.” See, also Alex Daniels, “Columbia Union: County’s Only Four Year College, An Enclave From Modern World,” Montgomery Business Gazette, May 1998.