Nov 03, 2000

The Virginia Supreme Court today ruled that Virginia state government may issue $55 million in bonds to finance new construction at TV preacher Pat Robertson's Regent University.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the group that brought the lawsuit, criticized the 5-2 ruling, calling it a blow to church-state separation.

"Thanks to this ruling, the state of Virginia can now help Robertson pass the collection plate," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Churches and church schools should rely on private donations, not public support."

Lynn, a Virginia resident, served as lead plaintiff in the Virginia College Building Authority v. Barry Lynn case.

Lynn said the decision undermines the right of Virginians to support only the religious ministries of their choosing. "Pat Robertson is a multi-millionaire, and he shouldn't look to the state for a handout for his ministries," he noted.

Observed Ayesha Khan, AU's litigation counsel, who argued the case before the Virginia high court, "The facts demonstrate that Regent University is a deeply religious institution. While Regent is free to strengthen and expand its religious activities, it should not be free to ask taxpayers to foot the bill. We're disappointed with today's decision."

Robertson sought 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. Today's ruling by the state high court overturns that decision.

Americans United argued that the bonds would be a form of government aid to Regent. Although the state will not be responsible if Regent defaults on the bonds, government issuance will 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. Americans United noted 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 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."

Moreover, a faculty handbook obtained by Americans United 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 also cited a 1991 unanimous decision from the Virginia Supreme Court that said Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg 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.

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.