New Jersey court blocks grants to religious colleges

A state appeals court ruled Thursday that New Jersey may not award state grants intended for building renovations to two religious colleges.

The proposal was initially challenged in 2013, when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against Gov. Chris Christie’s administration on the grounds that it was unconstitutionally promoting particular religious doctrines, and thus violating the state’s Establishment Clause, by awarding grants to an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva and a Presbyterian seminary.

Christie’s administration countered that the funds would only help pay for construction and renovations as part of a $1.3 billion funding package affecting 44 other New Jersey campuses, and would not directly subsidize religious teaching or worship at either institution.

But on Thursday, the court ruled in favor of the ACLU’s case, which officially overturns both a $10.6 million grant to Beth Medrash Govoha for a new library and academic center, as well as a $645,323 grant to Princeton Presbyterian Seminary for technology upgrades.

“This is a victory for civil rights and a victory for New Jersey taxpayers, who should never have to subsidize institutions that discriminate or that exist to teach their particular religious doctrine,” Ed Barocas, legal director for the ACLU, told

Barocas explained that while “everyone has a fundamental constitutional right to worship freely,” taxpayers have an equal right to know that “their money will never be responsible for propping up particular sects’ religious ministries.”

The three-judge court ultimately agreed when it ruled that the state funds would inevitably be used for religious instruction.

“Here, unlike other broad-based liberal arts colleges that received grants, both the yeshiva and the seminary are sectarian institutions,” the court wrote in its decision. “Their facilities funded by the department’s grants indisputably will be used subsequently, if not exclusively, for religious instruction.”

In its unanimous decision, the court explains that it conducted a thorough review of both schools’ curriculums and found that neither one has a “broader non-sectarian scope.”

Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, who was speaker of the Assembly when the bill was passed, had a different take on the matter, telling The Record that she felt “there was something inherently wrong in providing direct public aid to an institution that historically has not admitted women, that has not admitted other cultural or ethnic groups,” but mentioning nothing about the state’s Establishment Clause.

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