Bonds Undone

Virginia Court Blocks $55-Million Government Bond Issue For Pat Robertson's Regent University

To Richmond, Va., Circuit Judge Randall G. Johnson, the facts are abundantly clear.

Regent University is a religious school where one variant of Christianity fills the atmosphere. As such, government help to the university would violate the separation of church and state.

"The real question in this case is whether Regent is pervasively sectarian and whether its primary purpose is religious training," said Johnson, "and I find that it is with regard to both of those."

With that ruling July 30, the judge held that Regent is not eligible for a $55 million bond issue through the Virginia College Building Authority.

The decision was a major defeat for TV preacher Pat Robertson, Regent's founder and current chancellor. But it was a major victory for Virginia taxpayers and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which fought the bond issue in court.

Said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, "Robertson formed Regent University to promote his religious agenda. If he wants a college, he can have one. But he has no right to ask the citizens of the state to help pass the collection plate for him."

Robertson founded Regent in Virginia Beach in 1977 as a spin-off of his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). Then known as CBN University, the graduate school is part of the TV preacher's crusade to infiltrate all aspects of American life with his brand of fundamentalism.

Regent has prospered. It had a total income of over $49 million in the 1998 fiscal year and now offers over 20 graduate degrees through its schools of education, law, government, business, communications, divinity and counseling. It also has a Center for Leadership Studies.

The bond issue the university sought would have paid for a new building at a satellite campus in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Alexandria, Va. It also would have picked up the tab for a new school of communications, an events center and refinancing of student housing at the main campus in Virginia Beach.

Although the state would not be responsible for a Regent default on the bonds, government issuance would have saved Regent an estimated $30 million in debt service over a 30-year loan period.

AU's Lynn insisted that Robertson should not turn to the government to advance his ministries. Lynn said Judge Johnson's Virginia College Building Authority v. Statutory Defendants decision against the bonds is in keeping with church-state separation precedents handed down by the U.S. and Virginia courts.

Religiously affiliated colleges can only receive government help, the courts have said, if the aid is not used in any way for religious activities. At "pervasively sectarian" colleges, secular instruction and faith are intertwined, and government help would inevitably advance religion.

The case against state assistance to Regent seemed overwhelming. Americans United obtained official Regent documents that repeatedly boasted of the school's religious purpose and character.

In a brief filed with the Richmond court July 19, Americans United Litigation Counsel Ayesha Khan painted a picture of a school where religion influences and controls everything. Regent's curriculum, hiring and student admissions policies all revolve around religion, she argued.

The 1998 Regent Faculty Handbook, for example, says Robertson founded the school to "train mature men and women for the challenge of representing Christ in their professions" and to help "recover the Christian heritage of our nation."

Regent's mission statement, she noted, says the school "exists to bring glory to God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit." Its aim is to "provide an exemplary graduation education from biblical perspectives to aspiring servant leaders in pivotal professions and to be a leading center of Christian thought and action."

The handbook says Regent's trustees, faculty and staff must all commit to "an evangelical interpretation and application of the Christian faith" and must sign a seven-point Statement of Faith. That statement proclaims that "the Holy Bible is the inspired, infallible, and authoritative source of Christian doctrine" and says "the only hope for man is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, the virgin-born son of God."

The handbook also notes that the school is "closely identified with the present-day renewal movement, which emphasizes the gifts, fruits and ministries of the Holy Spirit," a reference to the Pentecostal-style charismatic version of Christianity that Robertson promotes on his television show.

Regent requires its faculty to integrate evangelical Christianity into all classes. The school touts its own constricted definition of academic freedom. The handbook says scholarly pursuits on campus must recognize that "God is the source of all truth" and "the scriptures are the written expression of truth and the revealed will of God."

Student applicants are asked to submit a "clergy recommendation" and several schools ask for students' denominational affiliation. The communications school asks applicants to explain how their "personal and spiritual objectives" relate to Regent's Christian worldview.

All students also must sign a form acknowledging that they will be educated according to the doctrines in Regent's Statement of Faith.

AU's Khan explained in her brief that Regent is under the tight control of Robertson and CBN, the multi-million-dollar broadcast ministry that serves as the core of his far-flung empire. The CBN board appoints all of Regent's 26-member board of trustees. (Some individuals serve on the boards of both CBN and Regent.)

All of this evidence makes clear, wrote Khan, that Regent is "pervasively sectarian" and therefore not entitled to government aid. She noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has barred aid to schools that fall into this category.

In addition, the Virginia Supreme Court in 1991 ruled that the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University was ineligible for a government bond issue because of its religious character. (The Habel v. Industrial Development Authority case was sponsored by Americans United.)

At the July 30 hearing before Judge Johnson, however, Regent officials and their attorneys tried to play down the school's religious identity.

Regent Provost W. George Selig testified that religious indoctrination does not dominate secular education at the school. "No," he said. "Religious indoctrination is not a term we've even used. We're not there to indoctrinate. We're not a church."

Selig insisted that student applicants face no religious requirements and claimed the student body of over 1,850 includes Jews and Muslims as well as a wide range of Christian denominations.

Faculty members have academic freedom, he said, and neither they nor students are required to attend chapel. He said only 15-20 percent of the instructors do so, and those who don't are not disciplined. Although Selig admitted that all professors must be Christians, he said the primary criteria for hiring faculty is academic credentials.

In her cross-examination, AU's Khan noted that the faculty application form says "it is imperative the Regent University faculty, staff and students conduct themselves in a Christlike and professional manner," including "regular church attendance, participation in activities of the Regent community and its founding organization."

The form also asks for information about the applicant's "conversion" and other personal religious information, culminating in an interview with Regent officials. Selig said that process has been necessary to weed out those who "said they were of a Christian persuasion," but whom interviewers found were "not what we would call a Christian persuasion."

Faculty applying for tenure or promotion, Khan noted, are required to include a summary of their Christian activities, including chapel attendance or church participation.

Selig conceded that some Regent schools omit religion from their student application forms' non-discrimination policies. But he said that was a mistake. "We're attempting to correct it," he said.

Regent attorney William G. Broaddus argued that the court should look at the university's practices rather than its "generalized rhetoric."

Regent, Broaddus proclaimed, "is not an institution whose primary purpose is religious training and theological education. As Mr. Selig testified, the essence and the importance is excellence in education."

Regent, he insisted, simply seeks to develop Christian leadership through "students who believe that society can be transformed through the principles of truth, justice and love. And we submit that the Constitution does not prohibit the use of teaching that seeks to develop principles of love, justice and truth as part of the educational process."

AU's Khan said Broaddus was on the wrong track. "This is an institution that was formed so that religious influences dominate the academic curriculum," she said. "Its very mission is to integrate Christianity into its educational mission."

Judge Johnson agreed. He noted that the documentation before the court demonstrated that Regent is "pervasively sectarian and that its primary purpose is religious training."

Pointing to Regent's faculty application form, Johnson noted that the school says it is "a distinctive graduate-based educational institution."

"That's fine," he observed. "But then it says, 'with the ultimate purpose of glorifying God and His Son Jesus Christ.'

"Maybe I'm missing something," the judge continued, "but if the question is whether the primary purpose is religious training, if the ultimate purpose [of Regent] is glorifying God and His Son Jesus Christ, I don't know how in the world that is not a primary purpose of religious training or how it is not pervasively sectarian."

Americans United's Lynn was pleased with the swift action.

"In light of all the evidence, I'm surprised Regent would even try to argue that religion does not play a part in every aspect of the university," said Lynn. "I know Robertson really wanted the money, but it's a shame he would deny the religious nature of the school he formed for financial benefit."

Lynn warned, however, that the battle may not be over.

Regent officials have not yet said whether they will appeal the verdict to the Virginia Supreme Court.

"You can be sure," said Lynn, "that we'll continue to follow this matter closely."