Should New Jersey be funding sectarian religious education?

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Among the institutions of higher learning that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would like to provide with state funding are the Princeton Theological Seminary, a school dedicated to training Presbyterian clergy, and the Beth Medrash Govoha, one of the largest haredi (ultra-Orthodox) yeshivas in the world.

Of the $1.3 billion in voter-approved construction funding announced last week, the seminary was designated for $645,313 to build a new conference center and upgrade its internet technology. One might ask, for starters, whether it needs the dough.

Thanks to putting its financial affairs in the hands of the late Sir John Templeton, PTS (unrelated to Princeton University) now has an endowment approaching $1 billion to go with its 500 or so matriculated students. With a five percent draw, that’s income of $100,000 per student per year. It doesn’t get any better than that anywhere in higher education.

Then there’s the fact that the seminary’s piece of the pie would come from the state’s Higher Education Technology Infrastructure Fund, which is restricted by law to state-funded institutions. But most relevant for our purposes is the question of whether government should be underwriting sectarian professional training as a matter of constitutional principle.

University divinity schools at places like Yale or the University of Chicago have Christian identities but combine instruction for the pastorate with the academic study of religion, and make it their business to admit qualified students of all faiths and no faith. Just to apply to the M.A. program at Princeton Seminary, you need a letter of pastoral endorsement.

As for Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG), it’s slated to receive $10.6 million for a new library and academic center at its Lakewood campus. Founded 70 years ago, it now boasts over 6,600 students — all male, all engaged in the rabbinic study of Talmud. On a scale of sectarianism, it makes Bob Jones U. look like NYU.

The grants to PTS and BMG have stirred considerable controversy in the New Jersey legislature. But do they violate the constitutional ban on religious establishment? It’s a nice question.

The applicable U.S. Supreme Court case is Tifton v. Richardson, a 1971 case in which the justices permitted the provision of federal funds for construction projects at religious colleges and universities. Arguing against the more separationist view of the minority, Chief Justice Warren Burger made the case that such funding did not violate the Establishment Clause so long as the recipients — in this case, four Catholic institutions of higher learning in Connecticut — were not overly sectarian in their approach:

[B]y their very nature, college and postgraduate courses tend to limit the opportunities for sectarian influence by virtue of their own internal disciplines. Many church-related colleges and universities are characterized by a high degree of academic freedom and seek to evoke free and critical responses from their students.

The record here would not support a conclusion that any of these four institutions departed from this general pattern. All four schools are governed by Catholic religious organizations, and the faculties and student bodies at each are predominantly Catholic. Nevertheless, the evidence shows that non-Catholics were admitted as students and given faculty appointments. Not one of these four institutions requires its students to attend religious services. Although all four schools require their students to take theology courses, the parties stipulated that these courses are taught according to the academic requirements of the subject matter and the teacher’s concept of professional standards. The parties also stipulated that the courses covered a range of human religious experiences and are not limited to courses about the Roman Catholic religion. The schools introduced evidence that they made no attempt to indoctrinate students or to proselytize. Indeed, some of the required theology courses at Albertus Magnus and Sacred Heart are taught by rabbis. Finally, as we have noted, these four schools subscribe to a well-established set of principles of academic freedom, and nothing in this record shows that these principles are not in fact followed. In short, the evidence shows institutions with admittedly religious functions but whose predominant higher education mission is to provide their students with a secular education.

It is doubtful that either Princeton or BMG would meet these criteria. On the other hand, the court’s religious jurisprudence has changed a great deal since Tifton. What looked like inadmissible sectarianism to the most conservative justices in the 1970s might well be considered innocuous by today’s majority, committed as they are to a principle of neutrality entitling religious schools to receive education vouchers and other forms of public funding.

Be that as it may, there is something deeply problematic — one could even say unAmerican — about the use of tax monies to support the training of teachers of religion.

The great charter of American disestablishment, James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” was written in 1785 in opposition to a bill to levy an assessment on the citizens of Virginia to support teachers of religion. And the document of which Thomas Jefferson was most proud, the 1786 “Virginia Act for the Establishment of Religious Freedom,” declares that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.”

I venture to say that both Madison and Jefferson would be urging Gov. Christie to nix the two grants.