Virginia taxpayers to challenge Christian university’s request for $55 million in tax-exempt bonds

Friday, July 30, 1999

Richmond, Va., Circuit Court is to decide today whether Regent University, a Christian graduate school founded by Pat Robertson, is eligible for $55 million in tax-exempt bonds to fund construction projects at the university. If the court decides that the university is pervasively religious, it will be barred by the Virginia and U.S. Constitutions from receiving the bonds.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia is arguing on behalf of three Virginia taxpayers claiming that issuing state bonds to the religious university would violate the constitutional mandate for separation of church and state.

The court action stems from a hearing on June 22, when the Virginia College Building Authority chose not to grant final approval of Regent's request because it was uncertain about the religious status of the university.

The Building Authority instead asked the Richmond Circuit Court to decide whether the request conformed to statutory and constitutional guidelines.

“From its articles of incorporation to its student selection process, Regent University's official documents make it absolutely clear that its primary and overriding purpose is religious,” ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis said in a prepared statement.

Baxter Ennis, director of public relations for Regent University, said the university had followed the established procedures for securing the bond, and therefore is eligible.

The bonds do not consist of state-appropriated funds or state tax money, Ennis said.

“The Virginia College Building Authority issues the bonds and loans the proceeds of the bonds,” Ennis said. “The state is not providing the money and there is no obligation to the Commonwealth or the taxpayers. Only Regent has to repay the bonds.”

Richard Ferris, associate director for the Virginia ACLU, said that neither Virginia's nor the U.S. Constitution would allow federal bonds to go to pervasively religious universities.

“We do not believe we are a pervasively sectarian institution,” Ennis said. “We are not a seminary or a Bible school.”

Ennis said that students are not required to be of a certain faith or background, they merely have to sign a “community life statement” that says they will receive their education in accordance with Regent's philosophy on education.

According to its articles of incorporation, Regent University exists for the purpose of “bringing glory to God and His Son Jesus Christ by providing an institution … in which those who are mature in the knowledge of God and His ways can assist and guide, in a spirit of free inquiry and scholarly excellence, those would learn of Him, His ways, and His creation, while together they study ways to glorify God and better their world.”

Ennis said he is optimistic about the outcome of today's hearing.

In 1991, Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell, was denied $60 million in low-interest bonds by the Virginia Supreme Court because they found it to be pervasively religious. And, last year, Columbia Union College was denied Maryland state bonds by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals because it was pervasively sectarian in nature.