Church, State and the Academic Pork Barrel

A lawsuit challenges federal grants to an Alaska Bible college that primarily serves Native Americans.
April 28, 2005

Alaska Christian College makes no bones about the centrality of religion to its mission. Its Web site features the motto "preparing young people for whole-life discipleship," and at its founding in 2001, President Keith Hamilton said that its "Bible curriculum, missions emphasis and Christian formation will send prepared students throughout the world."

But the college has another mission, too, Hamilton says: serving as what he calls a "bridge" between the rural villages and reservations where its mostly Native American students grew up and a four-year college degree that may help them build a life. In addition to its religious curriculum, Alaska Christian offers students counseling, career advice and access to secular courses at a nearby public community college. 

A federal judge's assessment of which of those two missions is the college's real reason for being may well become the next flash point in the legal wrangling over separation of church and state in American education. Because on Tuesday, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the U.S. secretary of education, charging that its awarding of about $430,000 in federal funds to Alaska Christian this year violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the use of taxpayer funds to support activities that endorse religion. 

"The question is whether the government can fund religion with no holds barred, no strings attached," says Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation. "This is an attempt to proselytize Native Americans and offer them an inferior education at massive taxpayer expense."

Education Department officials did not respond to requests seeking comment. 

Legal experts are divided on the foundation's likelihood of success. Most said they thought the Freedom From Religion Foundation would have a good chance at proving that Alaska Christian's educational offerings are religious rather than secular.

But at least one law professor, Richard W. Garnett of the University of Notre Dame, said it was "plausible" that a judge could declare the college's efforts to encourage American Indians to pursue a higher education to be a secular purpose that passes constitutional muster.

At issue in the case is about $430,000 that Congress, in its omnibus 2005 spending bill last November, directed officials at the U.S. Education Department to award to Alaska Christian through its Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education.

The grant was part of a total of about $145 million in earmarked funds -- also known as "pork barrel spending" -- that lawmakers mandated be divvied up to colleges through FIPSE, which has long been a program that recognized peer-reviewed, innovative academic initiatives but has been taken over in recent years by Congressional earmarks. The funds awarded to Alaska Christian, which followed another $600,000 in such grants in recent years, were to be used to recruit students, provide scholarships, and pay staff salaries.

In a prepared statement released this week, Hamilton, Alaska Christian's president, said that to have its grant approved, it "has had to lay out its mission and list how funds would be spent. Throughout this granting process ACC has acted with integrity and honesty and has spent the money in the manner that has been approved by the Department of Education."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation describes itself as a "national association of nontheists" established to "promote freethought and defend the constitutional principle of the separation of state and church." Its lawsuit focuses on the dominant role religion plays in the curriculum and rhetoric of Alaska Christian, describing the college as a "Bible-centered educational institution that integrates religion as a substantive component of its educational program."

The foundation notes that in their first year at the college, students take only religious-based courses, and finish that year with a Certificate of Biblical Studies. The college, the foundation says, "does not offer traditional college courses, such as math or English."

Their second year, students take a mix of Bible and other religion courses at Alaska Christian (as well, Hamilton notes, as some secular courses at nearby Kenai Peninsula College, a two-year institution that is part of the University of Alaska System), and emerge from Alaska Christian with a Certificate of Biblical and General Studies.  

Arguing that the department's and Congress's awarding of funds to support such a program "gives actual and apparent government endorsement and advancement of religion," the foundation asks the federal court to bar the government from providing the funds to the college. 

In his prepared statement and in a brief telephone interview Wednesday, Hamilton, Alaska Christian's president, takes issue with few of the foundation's assertions. But what the group ignores, he said, is the college's noncurricular role in helping its students: "The purpose of ACC includes assisting Alaska Natives and Native Americans to make the transition to extended college level education after completing its two year program.  ACC also seeks to help students overcome the effects of alcoholism and sexual abuse that are prevalent in Native cultures. There are emotional, intellectual, spiritual, physical, and social components in people's lives. ACC’s mission is to give students opportunities to grow in each of these areas through mentoring, academics, tutoring, career assessment, Bible learning, Native community, and counseling."

The key question that the courts will examine, legal experts said, is whether the federal funds were used to further a secular purpose, which courts have permitted at religious institutions in the past. 

Douglas Laycock, a constitutional scholar and law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said he thought that based on what he'd read about the case, the Freedom From Religion Foundation had a good chance of prevailing. Federal courts have largely upheld the legality of government support for colleges that offer "secular instruction in a religious environment," Laycock said. But Alaska Pacific, Laycock said, "appears to offer only religious instruction, and it's hard to see any basis for the government supporting that."

Garnett, an associate professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, agreed that the college's educational offerings themselves could be difficult to defend constitutionally as "secular." But Alaska Christian's efforts to "increase the matriculation of Native American high school students could plausibly be seen as a secular purpose," Garnett said, especially since Congress has "significant leeway in dealing with the welfare of Native Americans."

In an interesting side note, the federal judge who will hear the case may be familiar to those who follow higher education and the law. John C. Shabaz was the judge in another major higher education church/state case, known as Southworth v. Wisconsin, that involved the provision of student fees to religious-themed organizations at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.


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