SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Bible colleges in Illinois have filed a federal lawsuit against state education regulators, seeking the unencumbered right to award degrees to students who complete their programs.
The lawsuit, filed late Friday in U.S. District Court in Chicago, contends the Illinois Board of Higher Education is violating the Bible colleges' First Amendment rights of free religious exercise, free speech and ignoring the establishment clause prohibiting a state-sponsored creed.
The Bible colleges — there are about 15 statewide — don't have full-fledged collegiate curriculums that the IBHE requires to issue degrees. But the schools' leaders say not every student is seeking that; many want the religious education at a quarter or less of the cost of other private and many public institutions.
More than anything, the schools argue, the U.S. Constitution requires the government to butt out.
"We don't think there can be state regulation of a religious program," the Rev. Jim Scudder Jr., president of Dayspring Bible College and Seminary in the Chicago suburb of Mundelein, told The Associated Press. "If there is, then the state is deciding 'which' religion and breaking the establishment clause of the First Amendment."
The lawsuit names IBHE board chairwoman Lindsay K. H. Anderson as defendant. IBHE Deputy Director Jonathan Lackland told the AP that board officials were reviewing the lawsuit and declined to comment. Included in the filing are affidavits from Scudder and other Bible college leaders, accompanied by IBHE correspondence asserting the colleges are violating the law and, in some cases, threatened to close them.
Legislation to give the colleges degree-conferring authority won Senate approval without opposition last session but stalled in the House.
The crux of the issue is the word "degrees." Currently, the schools can offer "diplomas" or "certificates" to students who complete coursework, Scudder says. But the schools can't stay competitive unless they offer "degrees," he said, a term that has great meaning to prospective students, particularly international students.
"It's sort of a governmental 'ghettoization' of faith-based education by saying, 'You can't tell your students what you think the value of their degree is because you haven't gotten our accreditation,'" said John Mauck, a Chicago lawyer who's representing Dayspring, two other colleges, a student, the Illinois Bible Colleges Association and a Christian civil rights group.
In fact, state sanction itself would turn students away, college leaders say. Many choose the Bible colleges because they're not government regulated, according to an affidavit by Providence Baptist College President Michael Hall. Following government parameters "would subordinate to the state and the IBHE the church's responsibility to God in deciding how to properly educate students in religious teaching and in deciding who should do the teaching," the Elgin school's administrator wrote.
According to Mauck, an IBHE study found that 22 states, including Illinois, regulate religious schools to varying degrees, while 28 states have no regulations.
Sen. Bill Haine's bill would have allowed the colleges to distribute degrees only if they stated it wasn't state-authorized.
"One would look at it and see immediately it was not an accredited degree by the state of Illinois," Haine, an Alton Democrat, said. "My argument was it could not depreciate or confuse an observer ... If an employer decides that it's of value, that's American. It became an argument over the exclusive right to call something a 'degree.'"
Haine said he won't reintroduce the measure now that it's in court, and that's OK with the Bible colleges. Scudder said the colleges supported the initiative as a compromise, but held their noses in doing so.
"In hindsight, I'm glad it didn't go any farther," Scudder said, "because I believe we have the right and hopefully this lawsuit will give us that right."