CHICAGO (CN) - Bible colleges sued Illinois, claiming state regulators have no business evaluating the merit of degree programs that prepare students for Christian ministry.
The Illinois Bible Colleges Association, three Bible colleges, the nonprofit group Civil Liberties for Urban Believers, and student Leigh Pietsch sued Lindsay Anderson, chairwoman of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, on Jan. 16 in Federal Court.
There are 15 Bible colleges in Illinois, none of which are certified by the state to issue college "degrees" - they may offer only "diplomas" or "certificates."
The Bible schools claim that prohibiting granting of degrees to students who fulfill the requirements of their entirely religious curriculum violates the First Amendment.
"We don't think there can be state regulation of a religious program," the Rev. Jim Scudder Jr., president of plaintiff Dayspring Bible College and Seminary, told The Associated Press. "If there is, then the state is deciding 'which' religion and breaking the establishment clause of the First Amendment."
The complaint states: "Plaintiffs do not challenge the State's authority to regulate secular institutions or religious institutions that offer a secular education. Plaintiffs only contend that the State does not have the authority to set standards for religious education and training or to determine qualifications for individuals in ministry positions."
The colleges say they provide students with an affordable education to prepare them for careers as pastors, missionaries, youth ministers and church administrators. Tuition at Dayspring Bible College is approximately $10,000 per year.
"Specifically, students are trained to spread the gospel message: that God loves humanity so much that he sent His son Jesus to die on the cross for our sins, and that whoever believes in Jesus and accepts this free gift of salvation will have peace with God and eternal life. John 3:16," the schools say.
Twenty-eight states exempt Bible colleges from the college accreditation process, but not Illinois, according to the lawsuit.
The schools claim their inability to grant degrees implies that the education they provide is inferior to accredited secular programs, which confuses students and reduces enrollment.
"It's sort of a governmental 'ghettoization' of faith-based education by saying, 'You can't tell your students what you think the value of their degree is because you haven't gotten our accreditation,'" plaintiffs' attorney John Mauck of Mauck & Baker told the Chicago Tribune.
The schools seek declaratory judgment and an injunction exempting faith-based colleges from the accreditation requirements of the Illinois Board of Higher Education. They ask to be permitted to use the terms "Associate's," "Bachelor's," "Master's" or "Doctorate" in granting degrees.
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