A federal appeals court has ordered a new hearing for Columbia Union College, which was denied state funding because of its affiliation with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The Takoma Park college went to court after the Maryland Higher Education Commission denied its requests for funding in 1990 and 1995.
The state’s denial of funding was upheld in federal district court this summer. But a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that the college could not be denied funding, because it had not been shown to be “pervasively sectarian.”
“We are pleased that the lower court’s decision was overturned,” Columbia Union College President Charles Scriven said in a prepared statement. “Now we are considering our legal options.”
An official with MHEC said the commission will decide within the next few weeks how to proceed.
“It’s fair to say that we would have liked the appeals court to have ruled in favor of the commission,” said Jeff Welsh, a spokesman for the commission. “That didn’t happen, now we have to decide whether to appeal or take the case to trial.”
Columbia Union first asked for state funds in 1990 under the Sellinger Grant Program, which was created by the Maryland General Assembly in 1971 to provide annual grants to qualifying private colleges.
Among other restrictions, the program requires schools to demonstrate that funds will not be used for religious instruction, worship or other religious activities, court documents stated.
Columbia Union was turned down in 1990 because the higher education commission said the college violated the religion regulation.
In 1995, the college asked MHEC to reconsider its funding application. Columbia Union asked for $806,079 to help fund its math, science and nursing programs.
The commission again rejected the request and the college sued, claiming that the denial of funding violated its free- speech rights.
U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis sided with the commission, saying in a June 3 ruling that state interests prohibit directly funding a pervasively sectarian institution.
But the appeals court found that there was not enough information before Garbis to prove that “religion so permeates the college that religious and sectarian roles are indivisible.” It sent the case back to the lower court for a new hearing.
One judge dissented, saying there was ample evidence that Columbia Union is a pervasively sectarian institution and that the lower court’s decision should be upheld.
“The decision is not a simple one,” the appeals court said in its opinion. “The criteria for assessing whether an institution is pervasively sectarian are complex, elusive and heavily fact-intensive.”
Assistant Attorney General Mark Davis, who represented the commission, said he was pleased the court said the “pervasively sectarian” test is valid in determining whether state funds should flow to private colleges. He declined further comment Wednesday.
Legal groups on both sides of the issue said they were pleased with the ruling, which gave Columbia Union another hearing but did not expand on recent cases that have lowered the wall between church and state.
Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said they were glad the court rejected Columbia Union’s claim that rules governing state funding for religious institutions had changed.
Steven Green, legal director for Americans United, said other courts “have raised the bar so high that it will be hard to find any pervasively sectarian institutions.” He said he was pleased the 4th Circuit “avoided stepping out on a limb” to say the rules changed.
But Steven McFarland, director of the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom, said the government should be “religion-blind” when allocating funds for private colleges.
The Columbia Union case was a “prime example of misplaced discrimination,” he said. McFarland said the case is a “stonewall for the college and the only way to get over that wall is for the Supreme Court to take the case.”
The Christian Legal Society supported Columbia Union because it “felt it was a very good vehicle for the Supreme Court to reconsider its unduly separationalist decisions of the 1970s.”