CHICAGO (CN) – Illinois Bible colleges tried Thursday to persuade the Seventh Circuit that the state has no business evaluating the merit of programs that prepare students for Christian ministry.
The Illinois Bible Colleges Association contends that the state’s Board of Higher Education is violating their First Amendment rights by prohibiting them from issuing “degrees.”
The state’s 15 Bible colleges may currently only offer “diplomas” or “certificates” to students who complete coursework, but they claim they have a right to issue bachelor’s and master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s without state approval.
A federal judge ruled against them in March, finding no constitutional right to “describe student achievement in whatever way they choose, entirely free from government oversight, under the auspices of religious freedom.”
On appeal, the Bible colleges sought to convince a skeptical Seventh Circuit panel to see things their way.
“Religious autonomy cannot be violated by government regulation,” John Mauck, attorney for the Bible Colleges Assocation, told the Seventh Circuit at oral arguments Thursday.
Mauck added, “If Billy Graham wants to teach evangelism, the state shouldn’t come in and say he needs a graduate degree in evangelism” before he is qualified to teach a college course.
Judge David Hamilton agreed that “no state can tell a faith community who can preach or teach,” but said the colleges seemed to be “swinging for the fences” by arguing that the state cannot examine any aspect of their courses.
“What if a school were to offer a juris doctoris in Sharia law?” Hamilton asked. “Would that be protected?”
Mauck affirmed that an Islamic school should be able to offer such a degree.
“I don’t think the state has the competence to decide what is Sharia law,” he said.
Judge Daniel Manion raised the problem of for-profit universities, many of whom sell “worthless” degrees. He repeatedly mentioned a woman he knew who got a degree in interior decorating who ended up unable to find a job in her field.
“From a secular standpoint,” Manion said he was afraid that “to label [Bible college diplomas] as a degree is sort of fraudulent.”
Only 22 states, including Illinois, regulate religious schools’ ability to grant degrees. The majority of states allow Bible schools to call their degrees anything they like.
Judge Hamilton told Mauck, “The label ‘degree’ has reputational and economic benefits. You want the benefits of the label without the requirements.”
The Illinois Board of Higher Education’s attorney Richard Huszagh hammered home this same point, arguing that the Bible colleges’ really want the economic advantages of being able to offer a “degree” without adhering to any standards.
“The state’s interest is not only to prevent outright fraud by diploma mills” but also “substandard degrees that erode the standard of education,” Huszagh told the three-judge panel.
The attorney emphasized that the state’s accreditation process does not rigorously fact-check the subject-matter taught in classes, but ensures professors have proper qualifications to teach their subject, and that the course materials are relevant to the program.
He also affirmed that many religious schools, such as Wheaton College in Illinois, are accredited and do not object to minimal government oversight of their degree programs.
“It cannot be that just by adding a religious aspect to office accounting takes it out of the state’s reach,” Huszagh said.
Judge Michael Kanne rounded out the Seventh Circuit panel.
The Bible Colleges Association’s lawsuit names IBHE board chairwoman Lindsay K. H. Anderson as the only defendant.
It is unclear when the Seventh Circuit will issue its decision in the case.