ACLU-NJ sought information on higher education institutions that applied for aid amid concerns that taxpayer dollars funded religious institutions

NEWARK – The state of New Jersey has denied a request (131k PDF) by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) to release the applications of all higher education institutions that applied for public funding for construction projects, stating that if the information were made public, it would “give an advantage to competitors or bidders.” The ACLU-NJ filed the requests to learn more about the nature of the schools receiving funding, and in particular to determine whether Gov. Chris Christie’s administration violated the divide between church and state.

“New Jersey has an important interest in supporting higher education in the state, but it cannot be done at the expense of the separation of church and state,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “Public money should not be used to fund religious schools or institutions that may discriminate. Yet both appear to be happening under Gov. Christie’s proposal.”

“The state’s rationale for refusing to release the applications we requested makes no sense. The application process is already closed, so there would be no advantage or disadvantage in releasing these records,” Ofer added.

The state also failed to release scoring sheets and other records documenting how New Jersey Higher Education determined whether schools were eligible for funds and how much they should receive.

In May, the state released a list of 176 college building projects it selected to receive state grants from a voter-approved bond. The ACLU-NJ and state lawmakers have pressed New Jersey Higher Education to shed light on the criteria it used to select projects to fund. The ACLU-NJ is concerned that at least two of the institutions on the list, Beth Medrash Govoha and Princeton Theological Seminary, exist with the primary mission of training sectarian religious leaders and may be discriminatory in their polices or practices.

Beth Medrash Govoha, an Orthodox yeshiva in Lakewood, received $10.6 million. According to New Jersey Higher Education, Beth Medrash Govoha is a rabbinical school. Princeton Theological Seminary, which trains male and female Christian ministers, received $645,313.

The state legislature can reject the list within 60 days of its release.

On May 8, the ACLU-NJ filed a request under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) for the applications of all private schools that received funding. It filed a separate request for the guidelines and parameters the state used in determining the grant amounts.

The state released to the ACLU-NJ only broad guidelines, which allow for great discretion in selecting how much each project receives.

On May 10, the ACLU-NJ filed a third OPRA request seeking all applications, scoring sheets and all correspondence between New Jersey Higher Education and representatives from each applicant. The state asked to extend the deadline for that request to June 24. The ACLU-NJ agreed to give the state more time to locate emails and other correspondence, but asked the state to release the scoring sheets by May 31. The state failed to meet that deadline.

“It’s extremely troubling that Gov. Christie’s administration expects the legislature to rubber stamp this list without answering any questions about how these schools were selected,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “The legislature should reject the funding until these serious public concerns are addressed.”

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