Agency asks Virginia high court to allow bond issue for Christian college

Friday, September 24, 1999

Pat Robertson...
Pat Robertson

A Virginia agency that issues tax-exempt bonds for colleges and universities would like Pat Robertson's Regent University to participate in its program and has asked the state's high court to overturn a lower court decision excluding the religious school.

A group of taxpayers, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, objected to the Virginia College Building Authority's plan to issue $55 million in bonds for construction projects at Regent University. The school was founded in 1977 by televangelist Pat Robertson “to bring the glory to God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit.”

In late July, Richmond Circuit Judge Randy Johnson ruled that the Virginia College Building Authority could not offer bonds for Regent University because of the school's pervasively sectarian mission. Under state law, the establishment clause of the First Amendment and the Virginia Constitution, the judge concluded, colleges that provide “religious training” are not eligible.

The building authority, represented by William G. Broaddus, a Richmond attorney, has asked the Supreme Court of Virginia to review and overturn Johnson's ruling. In a 25-page brief submitted earlier this month to the high court, Broaddus claims that tax-exempt bonds would be indirect aid given in a neutral manner to Regent University and therefore pose no threat to the separation of church and state. Broaddus also argues that Johnson's ruling burdens the free exercise of religion by denying a nonprofit institution a state benefit merely because of the university's religious mission.

Broaddus argues that Johnson incorrectly labeled the university a sectarian training ground, even though its faculty must sign a statement of adherence to Christianity and its students must acknowledge the university's mission of glorifying God. Students also are required to sign a policy that states the university will provide them an environment free of recreational drugs and alcohol.

“Simply because a university wants to glorify God does not mean that it is engaged in 'religious training,' Broaddus wrote. “Indeed, the fact that the Christian businessman, the Jewish marital counselor or the Muslim lawyer may well intend to bring glory to God through their work, does not convert the study of Keynes, Freud or Blackstone into 'religious training.'”

Broaddus said that the Virginia College Building Authority's “sole role” was to provide Regent “the opportunity, like any other qualifying non-profit institution for higher education in Virginia, to obtain tax-exempt status on its bonds.” Citing the U.S. Supreme Court's 1995 decision in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, Broaddus said Johnson erred in barring neutral state assistance to the private school. In Rosenberger, the high court noted that “more than once have we rejected the position that the establishment clause even justifies, much less requires, a refusal to extend free speech rights to religious speakers to participate in broad-reaching government programs neutral in design.”

Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, said that his group and Americans United would soon file an answer to the building authority's appeal.

“What we are relying on is Supreme Court precedent that pervasively religious institutions cannot be the recipient of state support, even when the support is indirect,” Willis said. “We think it is ironic that Pat Robertson would open a university immersed in a religious mission and then attempt to argue before Virginia courts that the university is really not as religious as he says.”