Vulnerable under God: Could Religious Colleges Be the Next Institutions under Legal Attack?

Article excerpt

Education scholar Diane Ravitch reiterates in the New Republic what must be the best legal argument for school vouchers: "Why are children from impoverished families ineligible for tuition support if they attend St. Joseph's High School, but fully qualified to receive a Pell Grant from the federal government if they enroll in St. Joseph's College a few blocks away? Why is federal funding, and in some cases state funding, readily available to religious-sponsored institutions of higher education?" Ravitch argues that the time has come for primary and secondary school students to enjoy the same privileges as their university counterparts. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Supreme Court's recent ruling that. Cleveland's school-voucher program was indeed Constitutional, the majority opinion, repeatedly citing Pell grants, recognized the power of this argument.

But the obvious, worrisome, yet little-acknowledged problem with this line of reasoning is that it can be turned on its head. Opponents of school-choice programs, frustrated in their defeat, might begin to wonder why federal and state funds are going to religious colleges and universities across the country, not only in the form of indirect support through financial aid, but also through direct grants for construction and research. Indeed, the inconsistencies among the rules regarding public support of religious organizations, from schools to soup kitchens, are glaring. And though this latest decision makes it seem as though the courts are swinging in favor of equal government treatment of religious and secular institutions, none, including religious colleges, is out of the woods yet.

The legal conflicts over federal support for religious higher education began in 1968, when a taxpayer filed a suit challenging the claim of four Catholic colleges in Connecticut to receive grants under the Higher Education Facilities Act for construction of campus buildings. The federal district court, in the resulting case of Tilton v. Richardson, ruled in favor of the defendants on the ground that the buildings would not be used for religious purposes. The plaintiff appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which considered it alongside the parallel cases of Lemon v. Kurtzman and DiCenzo v. Robinson in 1971.

In Lemon, the court ruled that state aid for parochial elementary and secondary schools was un-Constitutional because it would have required "excessive entanglement" on the part of the government to ensure a strict separation between religious and secular education. In Tilton, however, the Court upheld the awarding of federal aid to the Catholic colleges. A plurality on the Court distinguished aid to religious colleges from aid to primary and secondary schools on two grounds. First, "college students are less impressionable" and not as susceptible to religious indoctrination. Second, "by their very nature, college and post-graduate courses tend to limit the opportunities for sectarian influence by virtue of their own internal disciplines." These factors helped the court rule that the colleges in question were not "pervasively sectarian" (a phrase that Ed Ericson, English professor at Calvin College, correctly notes "comes from a world of discourse alien to the religious colleges to which it is applied ... and applies a negative value judgment from the start").

Over the last 35 years, the first argument has held true (seven-year-olds are still rarely independent thinkers), but the validity of the second one has at least become more doubtful. In fact, the current trend in much of religious higher education is toward the "pervasively sectarian." At colleges ranging in denominational affiliation from Mormon to Jewish to evangelical Christian, many administrations are placing a new emphasis on the integration of faith and learning. Rather than restricting religious education to departments like theology and perhaps philosophy, religious colleges now believe it important for students to see the relevance of their faith commitments in each of their "secular" intellectual pursuits. …