Americans United has long opposed taxpayer support for religious education. We believe – as the founders did – that houses of worship and their schools do best when they’re funded voluntarily by the people who believe in their mission, not the taxpayers.

We’re happy to report a recent success vindicating this important principle. It took seven years to achieve, but we’re glad to have it.

In 2013, Americans United and American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) spoke out after we learned that Chris Christie, then governor of New Jersey, planned to direct more than $11 million in taxpayer aid to two higher education institutions that primarily provide theological training – Beth Medrash Govoha and Princeton Theological Seminary.

The two grants were part of a package of aid to fund various construction projects at New Jersey institutions of higher education. AU and ACLU-NJ pointed out that the two grants violated a provision of the New Jersey Constitution that expressly prohibits awarding taxpayer funding to ministries or places of worship.

Beth Medrash Govoha, an orthodox yeshiva in Lakewood, was slated to receive $10.6 million from the state to pay for the construction of a new academic center and a new library. Beth Medrash Govoha students spend virtually all their time at the school studying the Talmud and interpretations of it. The school not only provides students an intensive religious education but also enables students to devote most of their time to what is, to them, a central form of religious exercise. The school only admits males, all of its students are Jewish and all of its faculty are male Jews.

Similarly, Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution, was scheduled to be awarded $645,323 from the state for information-technology training and upgrades. The seminary’s mission is to prepare students to serve as ministers, educators or other theological leaders in Christian religious traditions. The seminary requires all of its degree students and all of its faculty to be Christian.

AU and ACLU-NJ were unable to persuade the Christie administration to stop the grants, so in June 2013, together with the national ACLU, we filed a lawsuit in state court to block them. An intermediate state appellate court ruled in our favor, but in May 2018 the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling sending the matter back to the New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education to develop the facts of the case in greater detail.

But both educational institutions involved eventually decided to stop seeking funding from the state. Princeton Theological Seminary withdrew its application for aid in April 2019. And earlier this month, on the eve of a week-long evidentiary hearing, Beth Medrash Govoha notified state officials that it would no longer pursue the grants through any state processes.

AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser, a member of the litigation team for the case, praised these developments, stating, “It’s a violation of religious freedom to force taxpayers to support religious education or religion-based discrimination.”

ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Karen Thompson said, “We will always strongly affirm the right to practice one’s religious beliefs. However, we will also continue to fight the unconstitutional use of New Jersey taxpayer dollars to fund religious training and religion-based discriminatory policies.”

The attorneys for Beth Medrash Govoha made it clear that the institution’s leaders weren’t pleased that the institution hadn’t been paid the grants it had sought. They should be, though. Religion in America has prospered thanks to the voluntary support it receives. Relying on government assistance not only violates the fundamental freedom of conscience of taxpayers, it also puts the state in a position of control and authority over private religious matters. Ensuring that institutions like Princeton Theological Seminary and Beth Medrash Govoha are privately funded is the best result for all concerned. 

Photo: Miller Chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary. By Flickr user Luke Jones.