When New Jersey residents went to the polls in November of 2012, they did more than vote for a president and members of Congress; they also approved a ballot measure allowing the state to borrow $750 million to renovate and expand its network of colleges and universities.
Public Question 1 passed easily, garnering 62 percent of the vote. Gov. Chris Christie (R) hailed the result, saying in a press release, “To keep more of our best students in the State and to make our colleges more attractive research partners for industries looking to bring good paying jobs and businesses here, we need modern facilities to remain competitive.”
Voters’ intentions might have been good, but events have taken a troubling turn since then. Bond funding has been issued to some unexpected sources, with the Christie administration directing more than $11 million to an Orthodox yeshiva and a Presbyterian seminary.
Stipulations published by Christie’s own office state that funding priority goes to institutions that “promote research excellence and workforce readiness, advance STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education, promote access to opportunity for all New Jersey and, ultimately, improve higher education in the state as a whole.”
Despite this clear emphasis on research, science and technology, a taxpayer-funded windfall of $10.6 million was awarded to Beth Medrash Govoha, an ultra-orthodox yeshiva, for construction of a new library and academic space.
Princeton Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), was awarded $645,323 for renovations to its theological library and other facilities, even though its goal is to prepare students “to serve Jesus Christ in ministries marked by faith, integrity, scholarship, competence, compassion, and joy, equipping them for leadership worldwide in congregations and the larger church, in classrooms and the academy, and in the public arena.”
If Americans United for Separation of Church and State has its way, these grants will not go through.
In late June, Americans United worked with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) and the national ACLU in filing a lawsuit to block the funding. Aid to such sectarian institutions, the civil liberties groups assert, violates the New Jersey Constitution.
“Religious institutions should pass the plate to the faithful, not the taxpayers,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Clergy training is the responsibility of religious communities, not the government.”
Ed Barocas, legal director of the ACLU of New Jersey, added, “We support freedom of religion; however the government has no business funding religious ministries. Taxpayers should not foot the bill to train clergy or provide religious instruction, but the state is attempting to do exactly that.”
The huge grant to Beth Medrash Govoha is especially alarming. How did an all-male yeshiva that clearly serves a private sectarian purpose receive more funds than any other non-public institution in the state?
The answer may lie in the yeshiva’s lobbying history and its grip on local political power. Located in suburban Lakewood, the yeshiva is surrounded by a fast-growing Orthodox population. It’s also one of the largest and most elite yeshivas in the world; as of 2012, its student body numbered more than 6,500. All of its students and teachers are male.
In a recent article for the Tablet, an online magazine of Jewish news and commentary, investigator David Landes noted that the current mayor of Lakewood is a yeshiva alumnus, as was his predecessor, and that the yeshiva’s political influence over Lakewood affairs “runs deep.”
This influence is primarily wielded by the Vaad, a committee of unelected Orthodox community officials that liaise with local government. Vaad members have strong connections to the yeshiva; most are either employees or alumni of the institution. Rabbi Aaron Kotler, the hereditary leader of the yeshiva, also heads the Vaad.
The Vaad represents a near-unified voting bloc, acting almost like an unofficial political action committee. Its aim is to advance the interests of Lakewood’s Orthodox community – and, by extension, Beth Medrash Govoha. (There has even been speculation in the state that the much smaller grant to Princeton Theological Seminary was just a form of political cover for the largess to the yeshiva.)
As a result, Beth Medrash Govoha and its supporters have become important political players in the state because politicians in both parties know they can deliver votes.
Landes described the Vaad’s approach as “pragmatic.” The reputation and interests of the community are prioritized, even over its religious obligations. That pragmatism became particularly evident in 2009, when the Vaad endorsed former Gov. Jon Corzine for re-election despite his support for marriage equality – likely because of Corzine’s pledge to commit $100 million to the expansion of a local thoroughfare.
New Jersey faces a gubernatorial election this year, and the Vaad has thrown its support to Christie. Critics say this is relevant, given the yeshiva’s recent windfall. The Vaad’s support was no tepid endorsement. Kotler has attended events with Christie and traveled with him to Israel in 2012.
Sheila Oliver, speaker of the New Jersey Assembly, told the Newark Star Ledger that the yeshiva grant stunned some lawmakers.
“I will tell you that I am extremely surprised by this,” the Essex Democrat said. “This is not a secondary institution that is open to the general public.”
The Star Ledger reported that the yeshiva’s leaders know how to work the political machine in New Jersey. They have long employed a top Trenton lobbyist named Dale Florio. The newspaper reported that public records show Florio met with state legislators to make changes to the bond bill, which originally denied tax funding to “any educational institution dedicated primarily to the education or training of ministers, priests, rabbis or other professional persons in the field of religion.”
The yeshiva and its lobbyists are adept at tapping the public purse. Oliver recently announced that the yeshiva had received $46 million in Tuition Assistance Grants, even though New Jersey law states that this type of aid can’t be distributed to students pursuing studies in theology or divinity.
With the bond funding on a fast track, AU and the ACLU requested a court order to block disbursement of funds while the matter is in litigation.
Plaintiffs in the case are the ACLU-NJ, the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey (UULMNJ) and Gloria Schor Andersen, a Voorhees Township resident who has been a public school and a Hebrew School teacher/tutor. Andersen is also speaker-at-large for the Delaware Valley Chapter of Americans United.
“As a member of the clergy, I recognize the important responsibility that faith groups have in training their next generation of leaders,” said the Rev. Craig Hirshberg, executive director of UULMNJ. “However, their religious studies should not be funded by taxpayers. When the government financially supports religious groups, it provides privileges to particular religions over others and diverts designated public funds away from programs that should benefit all citizens.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey v. Hendricks lawsuit cites the New Jersey Constitution, noting that three separate provisions bar tax funding of sectarian institutions.
Article I of the state constitution says in part that no person shall “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….” Article I also states, “There shall be no establishment of one religious sect in preference to another….”
Finally, Article VIII, Section 3, says, “No donation of land or appropriation of money shall be made by the State or any county or municipal corporation to or for the use of any society, association or corporation whatever.”
A hearing was scheduled before the Superior Court of New Jersey, but it was postponed after state officials announced that the grants won’t be disbursed for several months.
Meanwhile, local media have reacted favorably to the lawsuit.
The Asbury Park Press editorialized that it was “pleased” to see the legal action.
“An exclusively religious institution, particularly one that enrolls men only (or women only), has no business receiving any portion of the $750 million bond money authorized by voters last year for construction projects at the state’s private and public universities,” observed the newspaper.
The Atlantic City Press weighed in as well.
“Some church-state disputes are complicated,” asserted the paper. “This one isn’t. There’s no way public funds should be supporting these two religious institutions.”
AU is looking forward to working with the ACLU to prevent New Jersey residents from being compelled to prop up sectarian institutions.
“Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for the training of clergy,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United. “These grants plainly violate the separation of church and state enshrined in the New Jersey Constitution.”