Unaccredited Illinois Bible Colleges Can’t Issue ‘Degrees’

CHICAGO (CN) – The Seventh Circuit ruled Tuesday that Illinois may prohibit Bible colleges from granting “degrees” if the schools refuse to comply with the state’s accreditation process.

The Illinois Bible Colleges Association sued the state in 2015, claiming that its Board of Higher Education violated the First Amendment by prohibiting its members from issuing degrees.

The state’s 15 Bible colleges may 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.

“If Billy Graham wants to teach evangelism, the state shouldn’t come in and say he needs a graduate degree in evangelism,” the association’s attorney John Mauck told the Seventh Circuit at oral arguments.

But a federal judge last year found no constitutional right to “describe student achievement in whatever way they choose, entirely free from government oversight, under the auspices of religious freedom.”

The Seventh Circuit unanimously affirmed on Tuesday.

“Contrary to the Bible Colleges’ argument, the statutes at issue do not set a standard for ‘religious’ education,” Seventh Circuit Judge Daniel Manion wrote for the three-judge panel. “Rather, they set criteria under which the Board will review all post-secondary institutions of education and degrees issued by those schools. And states have a valid secular interest in maintaining standards for post-secondary institutions.”

Only 22 states, including Illinois, regulate religious schools’ ability to grant degrees. The other states allow Bible schools to call their degrees anything they like.

However, Manion notes that the schools represented by the association never applied for certification, so the board did not even evaluate the content of the religious education, and the association cannot plausibly claim that the board infringed on its religious freedom.

“The statutes in this case conform to the strictures of the Free Exercise Clause. First, they are neutral: They do not target religion or religious institutions. There is no allegation of an underlying religious animus,” Manion wrote. “Likewise, the laws are rationally related to a valid government purpose, namely protecting students and employers from relying on  degrees with no true academic value, and protecting legitimate institutions of higher education by safeguarding the value of their degrees.”

This last point echoes Manion’s concern at oral argument that “from a secular standpoint … to label [Bible college diplomas] as a degree is sort of fraudulent.”

The state’s accreditation process does not rigorously fact-check the subject matter taught in classes, but ensures that professors have proper qualifications to teach their subject, and that the course materials are relevant to the program.

Many religious schools, such as Wheaton College in Illinois, are accredited and do not object to government oversight of their degree programs.

Seventh Circuit Judges Michael Kanne and David Hamilton joined Manion on the panel.

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