Virginia judge blocks grant of state bonds to private Christian college

Wednesday, August 4, 1999

Pat Robertson...
Pat Robertson

A Virginia judge has denied state funds to Pat Robertson's Regent University on grounds that the state constitution and the First Amendment bar the use of public funds for private institutions with overriding religious missions.

In early June, the Virginia College Building Authority, a state entity, was set to issue $55 million in bonds for construction projects at Regent University, which was founded in 1977 by televangelist and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson. Regent's Web site describes the school as “a one-of-a-kind university, exclusively offering Christian graduate-level programs.”

A group of taxpayers, represented by the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, however, demanded on constitutional grounds that the building authority not issue the bonds. The building authority then brought suit in state court against the objecting taxpayers, asking the court to declare Regent University eligible for state funds.

The taxpayers argued in defense that “Regent University, the prospective recipient of the conduit bonds in question, is a pervasively religious institution and therefore barred from receiving such conduit bond authority under the Virginia and Federal Constitutions.”

On July 30, Richmond Circuit Judge Randy Johnson, ruling from the bench, agreed with the defendants. He said it was absolutely clear that Regent was a pervasively sectarian school and therefore ineligible for the bonds.

Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said that the judge was unequivocal in his ruling that the primary and overriding mission the university was to advance Christianity.

“Very little of the written material produced by Regent University is not immersed in religion,” Willis said. “All the materials the judge saw pointed to an overwhelmingly religious mission. The ACLU has no problem with the university's mission; we just don't support its contention to a right to receive the state funds.”

The university's preamble states that it is “a graduate institution that exists to bring glory to God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit.” A statement of the university's history, moreover, proclaims that the school has “become a center from which the gospel is being preached through word and example, to the entire world.”

William G. Broaddus, a Richmond attorney representing the Virginia Building Authority, argued before the state judge that Regent University was not a pervasively sectarian institution and that even if it were, it should not be denied a state benefit simply because of its religious nature. Broaddus said that a decision by the building authority to appeal Johnson's ruling had not yet been made. He said, however, the decision could be reached either later this week or by the middle of next week.

Last year a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent a case back down to a federal district court in Maryland to decide if Columbia Union College, a liberal arts college affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was too religious to receive state funds. The 4th Circuit's Chief Judge Jay Harvie Wilkinson issued a dissenting opinion in Columbia Union College v. Clark, in which he said the religious college should not be forced “to mold itself to an exhaustive template of non-sectarianess” to win state funds.

Wilkinson, moreover, argued that the Columbia Union majority had erroneously remanded the case to the federal court to have it determine whether the private college was too religious to receive state funding.

“If the program by which a religious institution receives assistance is neutral, in that it extends benefits to a wide range of recipients without regard to their religious nature, it normally will survive an Establishment Clause challenge,” Wilkinson wrote.