Today, the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization — joined with the Christian Legal Society in filing a friend of the court brief with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The brief was filed in support of Columbia Union College’s appeal of a federal district court’s dismissal of its suit against the Maryland Higher Education Commission [“MHEC”] for its denial of Columbia’s application for state education funds.
In 1971, Maryland created a program of financial aid to nonpublic higher education institutions. Known since 1993 as the “Sellinger Program,” educational institutions that qualify for the funds directly receive annual payments of state funds. To qualify for Sellinger funds, an institution must: be a non-profit college established prior to July, 1970; be approved by the MHEC; be accredited; have awarded AA. or BA. degrees to at least one class; maintain programs leading to degrees other than theological programs; and submit any major program modification to the MHEC for approval. Columbia, a private 4 year college affiliated with the Seventh Day Adventist Church, applied for funds in 1990. Although it satisfied all of the qualification criteria, the MHEC rejected the application because they deemed Columbia to be a “pervasively sectarian” institution and ineligible for funds under the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.
In 1995, Columbia requested that its application be reconsidered in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Rosenberger v. Univ. of Va.. The MHEC rejected Columbia’s request and the college filed suit alleging, inter alia, infringement of its rights of free speech and association and free exercise of religion under the First Amendment as well as violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In October, 1997, a federal district judge in Baltimore dismissed Columbia’s suit. Judge Garbis ruled that Columbia was indeed a pervasively sectarian institution and must, therefore, be denied state funds under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause.
In supporting Columbia’s appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Orthodox Union and Christian Legal Society contend that recent Supreme Court decisions interpreting the Establishment and Free Exercise lauses recognize that the Constitution does not require that religious institutions be discriminated against and denied government funds so long as they meet the same religion-neutral criteria as non-sectarian institutions and that any contrary decisions of the past should be overruled. Nathan Diament, director of the Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, stated that “this case is a critical opportunity to solidify the principle that religion is not to be discriminated against in our society; the Establishment Clause is intended to ensure that Americans enjoy the freedom of religion, not the freedom from religion and we are hopeful that the Court of Appeals will recognize this basic truth.”