Student challenge of religious school’s police force proves unpersuasive

Thursday, August 5, 1999

An Indiana appeals court has turned away a First Amendment challenge to a private religious school’s use of its own police force.

In October 1996 a law student at Valparaiso University, a private liberal arts institution in northwest Indiana affiliated with the Lutheran Church, was arrested by a university police officer not far from campus. The student attempted to have the charge — operating a vehicle while intoxicated — suppressed at trial, claiming that the exercise of police power by a private religious institution violated the separation of church and state. The motion was unsuccessful and the student was convicted.

The Court of Appeals of Indiana on July 27 unanimously upheld the conviction over an argument by the student that the state had unconstitutionally vested “governmental power in the hands of a private institution dominated and controlled by religion.”

Specifically, the student argued that an Indiana law granting universities, even religious ones, accredited by the North Central Association in the state the right “to appoint police officers” and therefore assume governmental powers violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Judge Robert D. Rucker, writing for the majority in Myers v. State of Indiana, found that the statute had a secular purpose and did not unconstitutionally advance nor inhibit religion.

“Neither the abdication of state power to a religious institution nor the resulting fusion of governmental and religious functions occurred here,” Rucker concluded in Myers. “The police power exercised by Valparaiso University police officers serves not as a standardless vehicle for the advancement or protection of religious interest but as a neutral means of protecting the safety of all citizens and residents at or near the university.”

Citing a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case, Rucker wrote that Valparaiso was not a religious institution for First Amendment purposes. Rucker said that despite the university’s affiliation with the Lutheran Church, religion at the school was not “so pervasive that a substantial portion of [the school's] functions are subsumed in the religious mission.”

The Supreme Court noted in Tilton v. Richardson that “by their very nature, college and postgraduate courses tend to limit the opportunities for sectarian influences by virtue of their own internal discipline,” and that “many church-related colleges and universities are characterized by a high degree of academic freedom and seek to evoke free and critical responses from their students.”

State lawyers argued before the appeals and trial courts that Valparaiso was not governed by religious strictures. The lawyers pointed out that of the faculty who adhered to various faiths, only 38% identified themselves as Lutheran. Moreover, although students are expected to complete nine hours of theology, religious courses dealing with an array of faiths can be taken to fulfill that requirement, the state said.