A small Takoma Park private college affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church has sued the state of Maryland, saying the state discriminated against the school in denying it an educational subsidy because of its religious activities.
For the past five years, the Maryland Higher Education Commission has ruled against Columbia Union College in its efforts to secure money for its students in the Father Sellinger Program. That 25-year-old initiative, named for the late president of Loyola College in Baltimore, grants private colleges in the state about $1,070 annually for each Maryland student enrolled.
More than $31 million was appropriated under the program to private Maryland campuses for the 1995-1996 academic year.
For Columbia Union, with a $12 million annual operating budget, the approximately $750,000 a year it would receive could have a significant impact.
The suit was filed on behalf of the school Wednesday in U.S. District Court by the Washington-based Center for Individual Rights, a conservative public interest law firm.
Charles W. Scriven, president of Columbia Union, said his school was the only one that otherwise qualified for the program and was deemed too religiously oriented for the state grant. He said the rebuff was an unwarranted intrusion into how the college handles its religious affairs.
The decision by Maryland to subsidize private schools creates a First Amendment balancing act. State officials must allow freedom of religion while not violating the establishment clause forbidding government sanction of a particular religion.
The challenge is the mirror image of a challenge to the Maryland program that sought to maintain the separation of church and state and led to a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a school where the curriculum and operations were "pervasively sectarian" was not eligible for the state subsidy.
Roman Catholic schools such as Loyola and the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, despite strong religious ties, were deemed to have separated education and religion enough to pass muster.
"In shorthand, they're more religious," said William F. Howard, the Maryland assistant attorney general handling the case, said of Columbia Union.
The members of the Maryland Higher Education Commission are the principal defendants, along with the state Board of Public Works, Howard and J. Joseph Curran Jr., state attorney general.
Howard said several factors led him to deny the school's claim: The school receives about one-quarter of its funds from the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
At the time of Howard's review, all but 16 of 150 full-time faculty members were Adventists.
Students were required to participate in religious-based service.
The faculty agreement required professors to work toward the mission of the school, which upholds the mission of the Adventist Church.
Columbia Union officials rejected Howard's reasoning. "How is it possible that attorneys who work for the state of Maryland -- attorneys of the secular state -- can make judgments as to which institutions are just a little bit religious and which are pervasively religious?" Scriven asked.
Columbia Union has more than 1,000 students.
Pub Date: 6/14/96