Newark – The ACLU of New Jersey applauded a move taken by administration of Glenview Elementary School in Haddon Heights to stop the practice of adding “God bless America” during the Pledge of Allegiance recited during daily morning assembly. The ACLU-NJ sent a letter to the school district (PDF) on December 30, 2015, explaining that invoking a blessing from God at the beginning of each school day violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which calls for no government sponsorship of religion.
“Our constitution is clear: schools can't coerce or impose religion on children,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “It’s the job of parents to decide how and whether to instill religion, not public schools. There is a special concern when it involves students at such an impressionable age, including kindergartners. It gives some children an uncomfortable choice between opting out and risking the status of pariah, or troublemaker, or participating in a group exercise that pressures them into voicing beliefs that may run counter to their own and their parents.”
Students at the school, which houses children between kindergarten and sixth grade, have stood at attention lined up by grade to recite the phrase “God bless America” immediately following the Pledge of Allegiance for about 14 years. The Constitution prohibits not only public institutions from favoring one religion above another, but also from favoring religion over non-religion. The United States Supreme Court has rejected a practice of invoking God’s blessing as a daily ritual.
“Students have the right to engage in speech, including religious speech, on their own time at school, and the ACLU-NJ has defended students’ religious speech in the past,” Barocas said.
“The fact that the phrase has some patriotic overtones does not cancel out the fundamentally religious nature of the words recited every morning in unison at the school, led by teachers and administrators,” added Barocas. “The school should focus its efforts on academics and the enrichment of children, not the debate over whether to add a religious blessing to the end of the Pledge of Allegiance.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today applauded a court decision today that ensures the right of Muslim New Jerseyans to challenge the New York Police Department surveillance program that appeared to target them based solely on their religious beliefs. The decision issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit sided with individuals, associations, and businesses represented by Muslim Advocates and the Center for Constitutional Rights, and reinstated the case in which the ACLU-NJ and Rutgers School of Law-Newark Constitutional Rights Clinic filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of numerous civil rights organizations. The opinion rejected a lower court opinion issued in February 2014 that had erroneously held that the plaintiffs had no standing to sue and accepted at face value the government’s unsupported rationale for the spying.
As explained by the Court: “What occurs here in one guise is not new. We have been down similar roads before. Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and Japanese-Americans during World War II are examples that readily spring to mind. We are left to wonder why we cannot see with foresight what we see so clearly with hindsight — that ‘loyalty is a matter of the heart and mind, not race, creed, or color.’”
The following statement is from Edward Barocas, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey.
“The ACLU-NJ commends the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit for reinstating the case against the NYPD’s discriminatory spying program. It appears the agency spied on Muslim individuals, mosques, and Muslim-owned businesses based solely on religion. Our Constitution forbids such discriminatory actions.
“Widespread discriminatory policies against religious and ethnic minorities have occurred before in our country, but we look back on such actions with regret, as we will here. The opinion today rightly overturned a ruling that would have denied individuals the right to challenge patently unconstitutional discrimination. When the government profiles an entire group of people based solely on a characteristic such as ethnicity or religion, affected individuals are due their day in court, which will now happen. We look forward to the next steps in this important case.”
NEWARK – The ACLU of New Jersey, the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State submitted written arguments (PDF) challenging New Jersey’s rationale for awarding more than $11 million in taxpayer funds to two higher education institutions dedicated to religious training and instruction.
NJ Attorney General John Hoffman defended the state grants to the Lakewood Yeshiva Beth Medrash Gohova and the Princeton Theological Seminary in a brief dated June 10, 2015, in the lawsuit ACLU-NJ v. Hendricks. Hoffman argued that the grants are for academic purposes – the construction of classrooms, a library and other capital improvements – not furtherance of religious teachings and, therefore, do not violate the state Constitution or the Law Against Discrimination.
“The Constitution does not allow the State to subsidize the training of clergy or other religious instruction, nor does it allow subsidizing discriminatory institutions. The proposed grants would do exactly these things,” said Edward Barocas, legal director of the ACLU-NJ.
Responding to the state’s defense, groups filed a brief characterizing the State’s arguments as “unavailing” and an attempt to undermine a 1978 NJ Supreme Court ruling that clearly bars the use of public funds for the maintenance or support of religious groups. The brief asks the state Appellate Court to recognize the violations of the Constitution and bar the state from awarding the tax-funded grants to the schools.
“Taxpayers must not be forced to fund divinity schools," said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser. “The court should strike down these grants.”
On April 29, 2013, following a competitive application process, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration released a list of 176 college construction projects to be funded with the proceeds from a voter-approved bond sale. The ACLU of NJ, ACLU and Americans United, went to court in June 2013 to challenge the funding under the state Constitution and the Law Against Discrimination.
“These grants flout important safeguards in the state Constitution,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Taxpayers shouldn’t have to underwrite discrimination or the religious training of clergy.”
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 Yeshiva does not admit women and its faculty is entirely male and Jewish. The seminary requires degree students to be Christian.
The ACLU-NJ, ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State went to court in June 2013 to challenge the funding under the state constitution and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. In their brief, the plaintiffs cited three violations of the state Constitution, which prohibits using taxpayer funds:
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.
Because governmental entities are public accommodations subject to the LAD, they are prohibited from providing special benefits to organizations that discriminate based on religion or sex. The proposed grants constitute special benefits to two institutions that do exactly that. The Seminary has a policy of allowing only Christians to become degree students, faculty, or board members. While it has no formal policy barring women or non-Jews, the Yeshiva’s entire faculty is Jewish and male and the student body is all male and believed to be all-Jewish.
Hoffman’s response argued that the 176 grants included awards to 15 private institutions and that the stated public benefit -- to improve the quality and capacity of higher education in New Jersey -- is not measured by each grant but rather by the entirety of the program. The state also said the grants were for the benefit of education not religious instruction, because the assistance is meant for classrooms, libraries and other academic functions.
Further, the State argued that schools with religious affiliations are not barred from taxpayer assistance, such as police and fire services, and that the plaintiffs’ assertion that the grants are violations is an overly broad interpretation of the state Constitution and the NJ Supreme Court’s findings in the landmark case, Resnick v. East Brunswick Township Board of Education.
Finally, the state argued in its written brief, “Religious institutions are expressly exempt from the LAD,” and that the State should not be barred from giving funds or other special benefits to organizations that are permitted to discriminate because they are exempt from the law.
Despite the state’s claim that the grants were plentiful and wide-reaching, the awards were made competitively, at the discretion of the State Secretary of Higher Education, and nearly a third of the applications for funding were rejected.
While the NJ Constitution does not preclude the State from providing general services such as fire and police protection to religious organizations, it does foreclose direct “out-of-pocket” funding for sectarian religious instruction and the training of clergy.
While religious institutions may be exempt from the LAD and therefore permitted to engage in discrimination, a place of public accommodation covered by the law (including the NJ government) is not permitted to indirectly promote or support such discrimination by providing special benefits to such discriminatory groups. Here, the State is providing the two institutions a total of more than $10 million in discretionary taxpayer funds.
Oral argument in the case has not yet been scheduled.
NEWARK – As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie prepares to announce his candidacy today for president of the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) reissued its report card on his first term in office.
Christie earned a grade of D+ for his record on civil liberties and civil rights. Now into his second term, Christie not only continues his poor performance, but raises new concerns about his record on key matters of constitutional rights.
“As Americans begin to consider candidates for the presidency, it is vitally important that they are informed about their candidates’ records on constitutional rights and freedoms,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “We hope that this guide will help voters become more informed about Governor Christie’s stance on key civil liberties and civil rights issues.”
The ACLU-NJ report card graded Christie on 12 crucial civil rights and liberties matters: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, voting rights, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, privacy, LGBT rights, criminal justice and drug policy, transparency, separation of powers, and economic justice.
“Governor Christie’s record on civil liberties and civil rights has been a poor one,” said Ofer. “Some of his most frustrating moments have been those times when he paid lip service to the protection of rights but failed to back up words with actions. For gay and lesbian New Jerseyans seeking to marry, sick patients in need of medical marijuana, or New Jerseyans seeking to learn basic information about their state government, the Christie administration has been a failure.”
Christie’s lowest grades were in the areas of transparency, separation of church and state, and separation of powers. The governor earned higher marks in other areas, such as freedom of religion. Following are some highlights (and lowlights).
Christie’s second-term has raised other civil liberties and rights concerns. He has opposed early, in-person voting, dismissing it as an attempt at voter fraud despite the lack of evidence to support such claims. And eight months ago his administration issued an order requiring the detention of medical workers returning from one of three West African countries where they treated Ebola patients, even if they were asymptomatic. The decision was widely criticized by the medical community following the detention of a nurse, Kaci Hickox, at Newark Liberty International Airport. In the face of public pressure, he eventually released Hickox.
Finally, Christie has repeatedly stated that the Patriot Act does not violate civil liberties, despite the fact that numerous federal courts have found provisions of the Act to be unconstitutional and to violate civil liberties.
The Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court on Aug. 12 affirmed the rights of a man who was held in contempt of court (PDF) based on an expression of religious freedom. Appellate Division Judges Paulette Sapp-Peterson and Marie E. Lihotz ruled that two lower court judges had erred, one in holding Matthew Graham in contempt for refusing to remove a religious head-covering and another for failing to dismiss the contempt order even after having found that the municipal court judge did not follow proper procedures in issuing the citation. The Appellate Division dismissed the contempt order, marking a victory for both due process and the First Amendment. The ACLU-NJ first received notice of the order on Friday, Aug. 15.
“This order recognizes the obligation of our courts at every level to take both religious freedom and due process seriously,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom, who argued the case on Graham’s behalf. ”No one, no matter his religion, should be forced to violate his religious principles by the very judges that are supposed to protect our rights.”
When Matthew Graham went before Egg Harbor City Municipal Judge William Cappuccio in Oct. 2013, the judge held Graham in contempt for not removing his hat, despite Graham’s explanation that he wore it for religious purposes. When Judge Cappuccio stated that he knew of no religion that required the wearing of a “ski cap,” Graham attempted to explain that he lacked the funds to travel to the store where he could purchase a more traditional religious cap. Judge Cappuccio did not engage in a full hearing on the matter, and instead summarily held Graham in contempt for refusing to remove the cap.
Graham attempted to appeal the contempt finding from the municipal court to the Atlantic County Law Division. Because he could not afford the filing fee or transcript fee for an appeal, Graham sought to be declared indigent, which would relieve him of the financial obligations for those fees. However, Atlantic County Superior Court Presiding Judge Michael Donio refused to hold an indigency hearing or waive the fees, not because he thought Graham could afford them, but because Graham had disobeyed the lower court judge’s command to uncover his head -- the very issue Graham sought to appeal.
In refusing to hold a hearing on Graham’s indigency and ultimately refusing to waive the cost of the transcript, Judge Donio blocked Graham’s access to the courts, a right that the Constitution grants even to those without money. The ACLU-NJ appealed that issue to the Appellate Division on Mr. Graham’s behalf in January of 2014, and the Appellate Division ordered an indigency hearing. Mr. Graham was eventually provided with a transcript of the municipal court hearing free of charge and allowed to appeal his contempt finding.
Judge Donio did not address the constitutional issue in Graham’s case, but he did agree that the municipal judge failed to follow proper procedure in issuing the citation. Instead of dismissing the contempt finding, as is required under the law, Judge Donio sent the matter back to the municipal court to give the municipal judge another opportunity to explain why he had held Mr. Graham in contempt.
Once again the ACLU-NJ appealed the case to the Appellate Division (PDF), resulting in the decision issued on Aug. 12. The ACLU-NJ explained that not only does case law require a dismissal, but that it is also inappropriate for a person to be forced back into court to appear before a judge simply because he was exercising his right to religious freedom.
The Appellate Division held: “We do not believe that wearing of what the municipal judge called a ‘ski cap’ during the proceeding compelled invocation of the extraordinary judicial contempt powers to summarily adjudicate defendant’s conduct.”
The order further stated: “Because the state concedes that the municipal judge failed to adhere to … procedural requirements … the adjudication of contempt was procedurally defective. The interest of justice is not served under this record by a remand.”
“Given the Judiciary’s scarce resources, it is disappointing that we needed to twice argue before the Superior Court and twice file appeals with the Appellate Division in order to vindicate basic principles of due process and religious freedom,” said Shalom. “But, in the end, we’re pleased that the courts properly protected Mr. Graham’s rights.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has submitted a friend-of-the-court brief (PDF) on behalf of itself and numerous civil rights advocacy organizations in the case of Hassan, et al., v. City of New York, which challenges the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) surveillance of Muslims, mosques, and Muslim-owned businesses in New Jersey. The brief, which was submitted to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, explained that the lower court erred when it issued a decision in February dismissing the plaintiffs' claims.
The organizations on the brief included Latino Justice PRLDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the Garden State Bar Association, the Hispanic Bar Association, and the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey.
"When a person presents evidence that a government agency has singled them out for harsher treatment because of their race, ethnicity or religion, the government bears a heavy burden of justifying its actions," stated Rutgers Law School-Newark's Acting Dean Ronald Chen, who is serving as the ACLU-NJ's cooperating counsel in the case. "The plaintiffs deserve to have their day in court to challenge being profiled by the NYPD."
For years, the New York City Police Department secretly conducted surveillance that targeted Muslims living in New Jersey, until a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press series uncovered the program. On February 21, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge William Martini dismissed the lawsuit, filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Muslim Advocates on behalf of eight Muslim residents of New Jersey, despite the serious constitutional concerns involved in targeting people for surveillance based solely on their religion.
"This appeal is significant, not only because it seeks to restore a challenge the NYPD's surveillance practices, but also because of what it could mean for future civil rights causes," said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. "Our federal courts must be open to hearing discrimination claims. As explained in the brief, when the government profiles an entire group of people based solely on a characteristic such as ethnicity or religion, it has a ripple effect, causing others to fear and discriminate against that group."
The amicus brief in Hassan v. City of New York was filed in the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
NEWARK - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) has given Gov. Chris Christie a D+ (PDF) for his overall record on civil liberties and civil rights during his first term in office. The ACLU-NJ examined the governor’s record in 12 issue areas and gave him his lowest grades in the areas of separation of church and state, transparency, and separation of powers.
The governor earned higher marks in other areas, such as freedom of religion and voting rights. The report card examines the Christie administration from January 19, 2010 when Gov. Christie was sworn into office, to January 20, 2014 when his first term ended.
“Gov. Christie’s overall record on civil liberties and civil rights has been poor, ranging mostly from mediocre to failing,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “The Christie administration’s first-term record on civil liberties will be remembered for its assaults on judicial independence and the separation of church and state, as well as for its disdain for transparency. Some of Governor Christie’s most frustrating civil liberties moments have been those instances where he has failed to back up bold words with substantive actions, such as in the areas of LGBT rights and the failed war on drugs.”
The first-term report card graded the governor on 12 crucial civil rights and liberties issues: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, voting rights, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, privacy, LGBT rights, criminal justice and drug policy, transparency, separation of powers, and economic justice. This report card expanded on the categories of the ACLU-NJ’s 2012 interim report card, which graded him in eight categories.
“The real concern here is not what these grades mean for Gov. Christie and his administration, but what they’ve meant for everyday New Jerseyans,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “From loving couples seeking to get married, to sick patients in need of medical marijuana, to poor New Jerseyans struggling to find an affordable place to live, many of us have not had a friend in the Governor’s office. While there still remains time to improve, as of now, this administration’s legacy on civil rights and liberties is not a proud one.”
Christie’s highest grade came in the area of freedom of religion, the category in which he also earned his highest marks in the ACLU-NJ’s interim report card. Christie deservedly received praise for supporting a developer’s decision to construct a mosque and Muslim community center near the World Trade Center during the height of the controversy in 2011. Soon after, Christie garnered national attention for excoriating a faction that railed against the appointment of a Muslim lawyer to serve as a Superior Court judge.
Christie’s appreciation for freedom of religion swung too far in the other direction when it came down to state involvement in religion. In the category of separation of church and state, Christie received the lowest score – an F. Especially damning was his administration’s decision to give away millions in state funds to two sectarian religious institutions: Beth Medrash Govoha, a school that trains Orthodox rabbis, and Princeton Theological Seminary, which trains Christian clergy.
The ACLU-NJ recognized his administration’s support for voting rights, especially in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, with a B-. In transparency, separation of powers and economic justice, Christie earned solid Fs for his abysmal record on all three issues across the board. The Bridgegate scandal exposed how frequently the administration attempted to keep government business out of the public eye, but it hardly stands in isolation.
Christie’s protracted fight against marriage equality, which ended only when it became clear that he would lose, cast a long shadow over some of his gestures of good will toward the LGBT community, resulting in his final grade of a D in LGBT rights. When it comes to immigrants’ rights, Gov. Christie supported giving undocumented immigrants a chance at a higher education by signing the NJ Dream Act, but he removed an important provision that would have fully opened the doors of opportunity by allowing them to apply for state financial aid, earning him an overall grade of a C in immigrants’ rights. Gov. Christie earned Cs in a plurality of other subjects as well, including freedom of expression, women’s rights, privacy, and criminal justice and drug policy, although even those grades ranged from C- to C+.
“The Christie administration deserves credit where credit is due, especially in taking a stand for religious expression and being responsive to voting concerns in the wake of Superstorm Sandy,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “But where Gov. Christie stumbles, such as when it comes to the separation of powers and to transparency, the bottom falls out. We hope the governor learned his civil liberties lesson from numerous court actions that were successfully brought against his administration during his first term, but if not, we’re ready to compel him to act as if he were an A student.”
On May 1, the ACLU of New Jersey and other leading civil rights organizations hosted a civil rights and liberties debate in Princeton for candidates vying for the 12th Congressional District seat. The seat is being vacated by U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, who is retiring.
Democratic candidates Upendra Chivukula, Linda Greenstein, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Andrew Zwicker and Republican candidate Alieta Eck, squared off on a variety of questions about civil rights and civil liberties issues. The event was moderated by NJTV anchor Mike Schneider.
The ACLU works to protect the fundamental right of every adult citizen in New Jersey to cast a ballot and have that ballot counted. Call the League of Women Voters of New Jersey Election Day hotline: 1-800-792-VOTE (8683) if you encounter any problems at the polls on June 3rd.
Co-sponsoring organization included: AFSC Immigrant Rights Program, CAIR-NJ, Drug Policy Alliance- New Jersey, The Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., New Jersey NAACP State Conference, YWCA Princeton, and YWCA Union County.
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ), the national ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit today to stop the state of New Jersey from awarding more than $11 million in taxpayer funds to two higher education institutions dedicated solely to religious training and instruction.
The groups also filed a petition asking the court to immediately prevent the state from doling out grants to those two institutions, Beth Medrash Govoha and Princeton Theological Seminary.
“We support freedom of religion; however the government has no business funding religious ministries,” said Ed Barocas, legal director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “Taxpayers should not foot the bill to train clergy or provide religious instruction, but the state is attempting to do exactly that.”
On April 29, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration released a list of 176 college construction projects it intends to aid with money from a voter-approved bond. The New Jersey Constitution forbids any such taxpayer funds from supporting ministries or places of worship.
Yet Beth Medrash Govoha, an orthodox Jewish rabbinical school in Lakewood, is slated to receive $10.6 million from the state to pay for the construction of a new library and academic center. All courses of study at Beth Medrash Govoha are classified as “Theology/Theological Studies” or “Talmudic Studies.” The school prepares students to become rabbis and religious educators.
Similarly, Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian Christian seminary located in Princeton, is slated to receive $645,323 from the state. All courses of study at the seminary either prepare students to serve as ministers or priests in Christian religious traditions or to serve as religious educators. The New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education’s website identifies the school as a “theological institution.”
“Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for the training of clergy,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “These grants plainly violate the separation of church and state enshrined in the New Jersey Constitution.”
Giving public money to Beth Medrash Govoha also violates the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The school is identified in federal records as a single-sex school with only male students. According to state records, its entire student body of 6,538 students was all-male in 2012, and all 79 members of its faculty were male during 2011.
“The state of New Jersey has an important role to play in providing financial support for institutions of higher learning in our state, but public money should not be used to fund schools that are not open and welcoming to all students in New Jersey ,” said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “State funding of higher education should not be done at the expense of the separation of church and state.”
The lawsuit was filed in Superior Court in Trenton. The plaintiffs in the case are the ACLU-NJ, the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey (UULMNJ) and Gloria Schor Andersen, a Voorhees Township resident who has been a public-school and a Hebrew School teacher/tutor. Andersen is also Speaker-at-Large for the Delaware Valley Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“As a member of the clergy, I recognize the important responsibility that faith groups have in training their next generation of leaders,” said the Rev. Craig Hirshberg, executive director of UULMNJ. “However, their religious studies should not be funded by taxpayers. When the government financially supports religious groups, it provides privileges to particular religions over others and diverts designated public funds away from programs that should benefit all citizens.”
The Legislature has until June 28 to reject the grants. Some lawmakers have raised similar concerns about funding religious ministries and pressed the state for more information about its selection process.
In addition to the lawsuit, the ACLU-NJ has filed several open records requests with the state to learn more about the nature of the schools receiving funding and how the grants were awarded. The state failed to release scoring sheets and other records documenting how it determined who should receive the grants.
“These grants fly in the face of important state safeguards that protect the religious liberty of all New Jersey taxpayers,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
Along with Barocas, Luchenitser, and Mach, the attorneys representing the plaintiffs include Frank Corrado of Barry, Corrado & Grassi, P.C.; Lenora Lapidus and Mie Lewis of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project; and Ayesha Khan, legal director of Americans United.
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.”