Americans United, Allies Win N.J. Case Over Religious School Grants

In a precedent-setting decision, a New Jersey appellate court ruled in May that the administration of Gov. Chris Christie violated the New Jersey Constitution when it awarded more than $11 million to two religious institutions of higher learning.

Americans United, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and national ACLU, successfully challenged New Jersey’s grants of $10.6 million to Beth Medrash Govoha, an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva in Lakewood, and $645,323 to Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian seminary, both of which are dedicated to religious training and engage in discrimination. This decision by the Appellate Division represents the first major state court precedent in almost 40 years concerning New Jersey’s prohibition on using taxpayer funding to support a religious ministry.

“New Jersey’s Constitution forbids giving state funding to divinity schools, and for very good reason,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, Americans United’s Associate Legal Director, in a press statement. “Tax dollars should go toward projects that benefit all the people of the state, not ones that aid only particular faiths.”

Although the court based its ruling solely on the New Jersey Constitution and state precedent, the groups also argued that a New Jersey statute called the Law Against Discrimination prohibits any place of public accommodation from discriminating based on religion or sex. While the yeshiva and seminary are private religious entities that are permitted to discriminate with their own resources, the state government cannot give special benefits that subsidize and support that discrimination, the groups argued.

AU and its allies noted that the New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education’s website identifies each school as a “theological institution.”

The court ruled that in this case, there was no significant legal distinction between sectarian institutions of higher education and sectarian primary and secondary schools.

“The fact that most or many of the students at the Yeshiva and the Seminary do not eventually become ‘ministers,’ rabbis, or other clergy does not cure the constitutional infirmity…,” read the opinion. “Nor does the fact that the Department’s awards to these sectarian schools were part of a larger competitive grant process involving non-sectarian recipients solve the problem.”

In April 2013, Beth Medrash Govoha and Princeton Theological Seminary stood out on a list the Christie administration released of 176 New Jersey colleges and universities set to receive funds for construction projects through a voter-approved bond issue. As the ACLU and Americans United explained in their submissions to the court, both institutions train clergy, provide religious instruction and engage in discrimination on the basis of religion or gender.

The New Jersey Constitution spec­ifically forbids taxpayer funds going toward the maintenance of a church or ministry, as the organizations argued before the court in April 2016.

The unconstitutional funding for the two schools has been on hold as a result of the legal challenge. The case is ACLU-NJ v. Hendricks.