Jul 21, 2015

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have submitted written arguments challenging New Jersey’s decision to award taxpayer funds to two religious ministries.

In a reply brief submitted recently in the case of American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey v. Hendricks, the civil liberties groups say New Jersey is attempting to undermine a state Supreme Court ruling that bars the use of public funds for the maintenance or support of religious groups. The brief asks the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division to recognize the violations of the New Jersey Constitution and bar the state from paying planned tax-funded grants to a Jewish yeshiva and Christian seminary.

“Taxpayers must not be forced to fund divinity schools,” said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser.  “The court should strike down these grants.”

“The Constitution does not allow the state to subsidize the training of clergy or other religious instruction, nor does it allow subsidizing discriminatory institutions. The proposed grants would do exactly these things,” said Edward Barocas, legal director of the ACLU-NJ.

“These grants flout important safeguards in the state Constitution,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Taxpayers shouldn’t have to underwrite discrimination or the religious training of clergy.”

The civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit in June 2013 after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration released a list of 176 college construction projects to be funded with the proceeds from a voter-approved bond sale. This included $10.6 million to Beth Medrash Govoha, an orthodox Jewish rabbinical school in Lakewood, and $645,323 to Princeton Theological Seminary, an exclusively Christian ministerial school.

Courses of study at both of these schools prepare students to serve as religious leaders or religious educators. The New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education’s website identifies each school as a “theological institution.” The yeshiva does not admit women and its faculty is entirely male and Jewish. The seminary requires faculty and degree students to be Christian.

Because of their discriminatory policies, giving public money to the yeshiva and the seminary also violates the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

Previously, state officials argued that the grants were constitutional because they were made for the benefit of education, rather than religious instruction, since the taxpayer assistance is meant for classrooms, libraries and other academic functions.

The civil liberties groups, however, reject that distinction.

“[T]he yeshiva and seminary are part of specific churches or ministries for which they train ministers and provide religious education,” asserts the brief. “But the Religious Aid Clause precludes [state funding of] these activities even when they are not performed under the auspices of a particular church. The clause precludes taxpayer support not only to churches, but also separately, to the ‘maintenance of any…ministry.’” 

Along with Luchenitser, Barocas and Mach, the attorneys representing the plaintiffs include Frank Corrado of Barry, Corrado & Grassi, P.C.; and Galen Sherwin and Lenora Lapidus of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.