July 3, 2013

ACLU Sues State, Alleges Seminary Funding Violates Separation of Church and State

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ), the State of New Jersey violated the New Jersey Constitution and law against discrimination when it awarded taxpayer funds to Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS).

Describing PTS as “an institution of higher learning devoted solely to religious training and instruction,” the ACLU-NJ, together with the national ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, filed a lawsuit to stop the state from awarding PTS $645,323. The money is thought to have been requested for technology upgrades at the new PTS Library.

The lawsuit also aims to stop the state from granting $10.6 million to Beth Medrash Govoha, an orthodox Jewish rabbinical school in Lakewood, to pay for the construction of a new library and academic center. The all-male Orthodox Jewish school in Lakewood prepares students to become rabbis and religious educators. It was due to receive $10.6 million. Its courses of study are classified as “Theology/Theological Studies” or “Talmudic Studies.”

“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.” He was expressing a view endorsed by Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who said: “These grants plainly violate the separation of church and state enshrined in the New Jersey Constitution.”

The New Jersey Constitution forbids taxpayer funds from supporting ministries or places of worship.

On April 29, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s administration released a list of 176 college construction projects slated for state aid. Mercer County institutions would receive more than $95 million as part of a $1.3 billion package for 46 public and private colleges and universities statewide. Described as the “first concerted contribution to New Jersey’s higher education infrastructure in decades,” the money would come from the Building Our Future Bond Act ($750 million) that New Jersey voters approved in November as well as four other higher education funding programs: the Higher Education Capital Improvement Fund, the Higher Education Facilities Trust Fund, the Higher Education Technology Infrastructure Fund, and the Higher Education Equipment Leasing Fund.

State funding for PTS came under scrutiny when Trenton lawmakers met for a budget hearing in May. Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks was questioned about the religious nature of the institution and the source of the funding. State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, was among those who queried the legality of the PTS funding source in the state’s Higher Education Technology Infrastructure Fund, which, it appears, can only go to state-funded institutions.

Institutions were required to present details of how projects served students and aligned with New Jersey’s workforce needs. According to the Governor’s Office the selected projects were those targeting academic programs, especially science, technology, engineering, and math.

Of the $6.4 million that Princeton University will receive, about $3.2 million will help fund construction of the new Andlinger Center for research on sustainable energy development and the environment. Princeton University was not eligible for funding from the higher education bond question in November because of its $17 billion endowment. The funding awarded to the University will come from the Higher Education Capital Improvement Fund.

Rider University’s $4.6 million will go to a new academic structure on the Westminster Choir College campus in Princeton that will feature a recital and rehearsal room, lobby, ticket booth, and multimedia classrooms.

The lawsuit was filed in Superior Court in Trenton by ACLU-NJ, the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey (UULMNJ), and Gloria Schor Andersen of the Delaware Valley Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“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.

Contacted for a response, PTS President The Reverend Dr. M. Craig Barnes said that he was unable to comment: “Our attorneys have left clear instructions that we cannot make any comments upon the ACLU lawsuit of the state.”

Dr. Barnes has led the seminary since January as its seventh president. A seminary alumnus, he graduated in 1981 with a Master of Divinity in 1981.

According to its mission statement, “Princeton Theological Seminary prepares women and men to serve Jesus Christ in ministries marked by faith, integrity, scholarship, competence, compassion, and joy, equipping them for leadership worldwide in congregations and the larger church, in classrooms and the academy, and in the public arena.” The Seminary has non-Christian students and joint degree programs with Princeton University and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Its students are able to take courses at both of these institutions.

—Linda Arntzenius