Court Hears Challenge to Millions Promised By NJ Government to Divinity Schools

April 11, 2016
Rev. Craig Hirshberg and Gloria Schor Andersen Rev. Craig Hirshberg and Gloria Schor Andersen

ACLU-NJ, Americans United, and National ACLU charge that state’s grants to sectarian religious institutions of higher learning violated NJ Constitution

In the latest chapter of an ongoing battle over government sponsorship of religion, the ACLU-NJ, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the national ACLU argued today before an appeals court that New Jersey unconstitutionally granted more than $11 million to two religious institutions of higher learning. The two institutions train clergy, engage in religious instruction, and discriminate on the basis of gender or religion. The grants violate New Jersey’s constitution and civil rights law, the groups said.

“At a time when public school funding has been slashed in our state, it’s an insult for more than $11 million to go toward private, sectarian, religious institutions that actively exclude students based on religion or gender," said Edward Barocas, legal director of the ACLU-NJ. “New Jersey’s Constitution specifically forbids the use of taxpayers’ money to further a sectarian religious institution’s ability to teach its religion or train its clergy members.”

The three organizations have submitted written arguments challenging New Jersey’s decision to award the funds to two higher education institutions dedicated to religious training and instruction and that engage in discrimination on the basis of gender or religion. In April 2013, $10.6 million was slated to go to Beth Medrash Govoha, a yeshiva which trains an all-male student body. Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian seminary, was set to receive $645,323. As a result of the legal challenge, the distribution of the funds has been on hold.

All courses of study at Beth Medrash Govoha, in Lakewood, are classified as “Theology/Theological Studies,” “Rabbinical Studies,” or “Talmudic Studies.” The yeshiva does not admit women, and its faculty is entirely male and Jewish. Princeton Theological Seminary “prepares women and men to serve Jesus Christ in ministries” and requires degree students to be Christian.

“Forcing taxpayers to foot the bill to train future rabbis and ministers violates our constitutional principles,” said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser. “The court should strike down these grants.”

The ACLU-NJ, ACLU and Americans United went to court in June 2013 to challenge the funding under the State Constitution and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. In their brief filed against Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks, the plaintiffs cited three violations of the state Constitution, which prohibits using taxpayer funds:

  • For the maintenance of any church or ministry
  • To subsidize or build facilities at which religious services or instruction will take place
  • To subsidize private interests rather than the public interest

Further, the brief cites the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), which prohibits any place of public accommodation from discriminating based on religion or sex. While the yeshiva and seminary are private religious entities that are permitted to discriminate, the government is a public accommodation and so can’t give special benefits that subsidize and support that discrimination.

“Separation of church and state is a two-way street: it prevents the state from endorsing or promoting any one religion over another, but it also protects religion from undue political and governmental influence,” said the Rev. Craig Hirshberg, a minister with the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey, a plaintiff in the case. “This funding is an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds, and it’s a decision that advances two particular faith traditions over all of the others. Public funds should not be used to support any religious tradition. That is not the state’s role.”

On April 29, 2013, following a competitive application process, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration released a list of 176 university construction projects to be funded with the proceeds from a voter-approved bond sale, which included Beth Medrash Govoha and Princeton Theological Seminary.

“Taxpayers shouldn’t have to underwrite discrimination or the religious training of clergy,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Subsidizing religion is not the role of the government, and it’s why the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions forbid it.”

Even though the New Jersey Constitution forbids taxpayer funds from supporting ministries or places of worship, the state awarded $10.6 million to Beth Medrash Govoha, an orthodox Jewish rabbinical school in Lakewood, to build a new library and academic center. The state also awarded $645,323 to Princeton Theological Seminary for expansion and construction of classroom and study space.

Courses of study at both of these schools prepare students to serve as religious leaders or religious educators. The New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education’s website identifies each school as a “theological institution.”

The briefs in the case, captioned ACLU-NJ v. Hendricks.

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