A Richmond judge ruled today that Regent University does not qualify for tax-exempt construction bonds because it is a "pervasively sectarian" institution "whose primary purpose is religious training."
The school, founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, wanted to use the $55 million in bond proceeds to pay for construction on its Virginia Beach main campus and to develop a satellite campus in Alexandria.
But Richmond Circuit Court Judge Randy Johnson said the admission and employment policies of the graduate university are clearly religious in nature, as defined by a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Johnson ruled from the bench immediately after a three-hour hearing in which opponents of the proposal argued that permitting the Virginia College Building Authority to issue the bonds would violate the U.S. and Virginia constitutions.
"This means that Pat Robertson cannot have Virginia's taxpayers support his ministry," said Ayesha Kahn, who argued against the proposal on behalf of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
"This is an important ruling that reaffirms the doctrine of the separation of church and state," added Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which opposed the bond proposal on behalf of Virginia taxpayers.
Regent's chief academic officer, George Selig, testified that although the school's mission statement requires courses to be taught "from a Biblical perspective," it does not preclude non-Christians from enrolling.
Although Regent's admission application asks about a student's church membership and requests a recommendation from his or her pastor, Selig said applicants may substitute recommendations from people "who can provide character references consistent with Regent's statement" of beliefs.
The school "strongly encourages" students and teachers to attend daily religious services, but Selig said "there is no punitive response" if they do not.
"Our job is not to proselytize, nor do we attempt to do that," Selig said. "We are not a church, and we are not there to indoctrinate."
The issue wound up in court after the building authority failed to reach a decision at its June 22 meeting on whether to help Regent. The authority was established to issue tax-exempt bonds to public and private Virginia colleges and universities that are not primarily dedicated to religious education or theological training.
The taxpayers are not at risk in the event of a default, but because the bonds were to be authorized by the state as tax-exempt, they would have saved Regent millions of dollars in debt service because the interest rates are lower than for taxable bonds.
David Botkins, spokesman for state Attorney General Mark L. Earley (R), said the bond authority's decision to seek judicial review of the request was appropriate. "Everyone is better off for having it now rather than later," Botkins said. "What the [authority] and Regent must now decide is whether to ask the Virginia Supreme Court to review today's result."
It could not be immediately determined if Regent will appeal.
About $8 million of the bond proceeds was to have been used to build a small campus in Alexandria that would include a branch of Regent's school of divinity. Plans called for a five-story building opposite the King Street Metro station. Last semester, Regent had about 85 students taking classes at scattered locations in the District, Springfield and Alexandria.
Selig noted that the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities "found no violations of religious freedom" when it reaccredited the school last November. Selig added that Regent's law school is accredited by the American Bar Association.
In 1991, Liberty University, founded by evangelist Jerry Falwell, was denied $60 million in state bonds after the Virginia Supreme Court found that the Lynchburg school was "pervasively religious."
For similar reasons, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year upheld Maryland's denial of tax dollars to Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, which is affiliated with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.