New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and some of his political allies are attempting to funnel millions in taxpayer dollars to two sectarian institutions that train members of the clergy – and they’d prefer to keep citizens in the dark about the details.
The state plans to spend $1.3 billion on construction projects, many of them at colleges and universities. Schools were invited to apply for the aid, and in late April, a list of 176 approved projects at 46 colleges and universities was released, reported the Newark Star-Ledger.
But there’s a problem: Among the awardees are two sectarian institutions -- Princeton Theological Seminary and Beth Medrash Govoha, a rabbinical school. The former institution is seeking nearly $650,000 for technology upgrades while the yeshiva wants a whopping $10.6 million to build a new library.
These aren’t just two colleges that happen to have a loose religious affiliation but that admit students from a range of theological and philosophical beliefs. Far from it. Both exist to impart theology and train members of the clergy. In the case of Beth Medrash Govoha, there’s an additional wrinkle: The conservative, all-male institution does not admit women.
Some New Jersey lawmakers are wondering why institutions that serve such exclusively religious purposes and that aren’t even open to all state residents have qualified for a tax-funded windfall.
“I can’t in good conscience sit by and let public money go to schools with such exclusionary policies,” Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), said. “It’s a violation of the state’s constitution.”
All of this is bad enough, but it gets worse. The Star-Ledger has raised questions about whether the Christie administration followed state law in making the grants. When the newspaper filed a request under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act to get copies of the applications filed by Beth Medrash Govoha and Princeton Theological Seminary, the Christie administration turned it down.
In a letter to state officials, Oliver expressed her dismay, writing, “For the administration to suggest to the Legislature and the public that the manner in which these funds were allocated is not information we are entitled to have is as bewildering as it is unacceptable.”
Oliver and another member of the Assembly, Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) have even introduced legislation to block the grants, but that may be tough sledding since no companion bill exists in the state Senate.
New Jersey’s Constitution is pretty clear on the question of taxpayer aid to religious institutions. Article I, Section 3, states in part, “nor shall any person be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry….”
In addition, Section 4 of that same article goes on to say, “There shall be no establishment of one religious sect in preference to another….”
Forcing New Jersey residents to subsidize seminaries that train people for careers in the pulpit would seem to be a clear violation of Article I. No wonder Christie and other New Jersey officials are reluctant to release these applications.
Americans United’s Legislative Department is preparing a letter on this matter for legislators in New Jersey. Oliver and others are already asking some tough questions, but more need to step up to the plate.
There is definitely something rotten about this process. The people of New Jersey deserve better.