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Virginia Supreme Court Approves Bonds For Regent University.

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

In a 5-2 ruling Nov. 3, the state high court agreed that Regent is a "pervasively sectarian" institution, but held construction bonds are not a form of direct government aid. The court also said that, with the exception of Regent's divinity school, the purpose of the university is not to provide religious or theological training.

Observed the court, "Because the bond proceeds are the funds of private investors, the bond proceeds are not governmental aid received by the institution. No taxpayer dollars are transferred directly or indirectly to a participating institution."

Thus, Regent qualifies for the bonds, except for the university's divinity school, which remains ineligible.

Dissenting Justices Lawrence L. Koontz Jr. and Barbara Milano Keenan argued that Regent's sectarian policies should make it ineligible for the bonds. "Theological education is not at issue here," they wrote. "Religious training contemplates teaching religious doctrine to accomplish a particular result. Thus, when an institution's principal purpose is to teach its particular religious doctrine, and when the institution pursues that principal purpose through its teaching of secular subjects, that institution has as its primary purpose religious training within the meaning of [state law]. The record clearly reflects that such is the case with Regent."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which sponsored the lawsuit along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, criticized the 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. The AU director 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 AU Litigation Counsel Ayesha Khan, 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 the state to help 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 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. The 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."
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Publication:Church & State
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U5VA
Date:Dec 1, 2000
Words:684
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