The Virginia Supreme Court has announced that it will hear a legal controversy centering on the legality of the state issuing $55 million in bonds to finance new construction at TV preacher Pat Robertson's Regent University.
Robertson is seeking the bonds to underwrite new construction at Regent's Virginia Beach campus and the building of a satellite campus in Alexandria, Va. On July 30, 1999, Richmond Circuit Judge Randall G. Johnson ruled against the bond issue, noting that the Virginia Constitution forbids government support of sectarian institutions.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State brought the legal action. Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, a Virginia resident who is the lead plaintiff, said he hopes the Virginia high court affirms the lower court ruling.
"Religious schools should be supported by voluntary contributions, not money coerced from taxpayers," said Lynn. "We're confident that the Virginia Supreme Court will uphold this important principle."
Continued Lynn, "Pat Robertson is a multi-millionaire, and the residents of the state should not be expected to prop up his projects."
Lynn and other parties in the case argue that the bonds would be a form of taxpayer aid to Regent. Although the state would not be responsible if Regent defaults on the bonds, government issuance would save the school $30 million in debt service over the 30-year loan period.
At the lower court, Americans United attorneys were able to prove that Regent includes its fundamentalist Christian perspective in all classes and other educational activities, based on a series of documents that the group had obtained. The group's argument was so persuasive that Johnson ruled against Regent from the bench, remarking, "I don't know how in the world you can say its [Regent's] primary purpose isn't religious training or that it is not pervasively sectarian."
Americans United notes that Regent's mission statement says the school exists to "bring glory to God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit." The university, the statement continues, seeks to provide "education from biblical perspectives" and "to be a leading center of Christian thought and action."
In addition, the school's admission form also asks student applicants to submit a clergy recommendation and to discuss in detail "how your personal and spiritual objectives relate" to Regent's "Christ-centered educational philosophy."
Perhaps most damaging for Robertson's university was the faculty handbook obtained by Americans United. It demonstrated that Regent's faculty members are required to make a declaration of faith and must provide the school's dean with a copy of class syllabi, each of which is to include a "statement of how the Christian faith and Bible will be incorporated into the class."
Americans United's position was also supported by a 1991 unanimous decision from the Virginia Supreme Court that said Jerry Falwell's Liberty University was ineligible for a similar bond issue because of Liberty's "pervasively sectarian" religious character. AU sponsored the litigation blocking Falwell's request of government assistance.
The case is Virginia College Building Authority v. Barry Lynn, et. al. Americans United is a 60,000-member public policy group that works to support religious freedom by upholding the separation of church and state. Based in Washington, D.C., the organization has members in all 50 states, including Virginia. Americans United brought this action with the cooperation of the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.