N.J. Grant Money Can’t |Go to Religious Schools

     TRENTON, N.J. (CN) — Two religious institutions cannot receive more than $11 million in state grants because the grants violate a ban on using state money for purposes of religious instruction, New Jersey’s appeals court ruled Thursday.
     In the ruling, the appeals court hinted that it was bound by court precedent to invalidate the grants, noting that the rules for government grants flowing to religious institutions has loosened in recent years.
     The disputed grants had been awarded to Yeshiva Beth Medrash Govoha, which focuses on Talmudic instruction and Jewish tradition, and the Princeton Theological Seminary under a 2012 state program earmarking more than $1.3 billion to improve state colleges and higher education institutions. The grants have been held in abeyance.
     The yeshiva, which has more than 6,000 undergraduate and graduate students, received approval in 2013 for two grants worth more than $10 million to build a new library and research center, as well as renovate another building to create new classrooms and faculty spaces.
     The seminary, which is Presbyterian affiliated, received approval for three grants worth $645,000 to upgrade and install new information technology. Part of its mission is to “prepare women and men to serve Jesus Christ in ministries,” according to court records.
     Other colleges that have religious affiliations also received state grants, including St. Peter’s University and the College of St. Elizabeth. The grants were awarded by the New Jersey Department of Higher Education.
     After news of the grants broke, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry, or UULM, sued in 2013, alleging the grants violated New Jersey’s state constitution because the two colleges train ministers.
     The complaint also alleged the grants violated anti-discrimination laws because the two religious institutions engaged in gender-based or religion-based discriminatory practices. Both the yeshiva and the seminary curriculum’s include religious studies. Admission into the yeshiva is limited to qualified men, and the seminary permits only Christians on its faculty.
     State officials defended the grants, saying they were earmarked to build classrooms, not places of worship. It also argued that the yeshiva and seminary taught college and graduate students, who were less susceptible to religious indoctrination than elementary students and thus the grants were not prohibited under state law.
     In its ruling, the New Jersey Appellate Division considered whether the 1844 state constitution barred state funds going to sectarian schools, and also weighed an 1873 decision in which New Jersey commissioners agreed to exclude such schools from receiving state funds.
     In the end, though, the appeals court bowed out of resolving the historical dispute and instead turned to court precedent.
     In the 1978 case Resnick v. East Brunwick Township Board of Education, the New Jersey Supreme Court prohibited public schools from allowing religious organizations to use school facilities below cost for the purposes of religious instruction for both children and adults.
     “The state argues that the court’s 1978 opinion is out of step with more recent national trends in constitutional jurisprudence concerning religion,” Judge Jack Sabatino wrote in Thursday’s opinion, noting also that “First Amendment jurisprudence has shifted over the years to relax the circumstances under which government aid for religious schools is permitted.”
     However, the court found no reason to overturn the 1978 opinion.
     “Resnick has never been overruled or called into question by the court,” Sabatino wrote for a three-judge panel. “As an intermediate appellate court, we are bound by the court’s holding.”
     Sabatino accordingly ruled that “Resnick compels invalidation of the grants to the yeshiva and the seminary.”
     The court did not address the anti-discrimination allegations of the lawsuit.
     ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas called the ruling “groundbreaking” and said that “the government must respect the right to New Jersey taxpayers to know that their money will never be responsible for propping up particular sects’ religious ministries.”
     A spokeswoman for the seminary declined to comment. The yeshiva could not be reached for comment.

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