The New Jersey Supreme Court heard arguments October 23 in a case involving the awarding of public money to two religious institutions of higher education.
In 2013, the current administration awarded $10.6 million in construction funds to Beth Medrash Govoha, a yeshiva in Lakewood, and $645,323 to Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution, The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued to block the action.
The grant awarded to the Princeton Theological Seminary sought to pay for technology upgrades so many of the materials in its library collection which include subjects such as ethics, philosophy, archaeology and the history of religion could be accessed worldwide. A second grant would pay for construction of a room that would primarily be used by employees for computer training.
The yeshiva only employs Jewish men; the seminary only allows Christians to be degree students or faculty members.
Lower Court Action
Last year, a state appellate panel ruled that the administration’s actions violated the state Constitution, which prohibits taxpayer dollars from going toward the maintenance of a church or ministry. The administration appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
Arguing the State views the schools as institutions of higher education, rather than religious schools, Stuart M. Feinblatt, an assistant state attorney general, argued in court that the grants in aid should remain awarded.
“This case does not involve a church or place of worship,” he told the justices, later adding, “You have to focus on the specific purpose of the use of the money.”
Avi Schick, an attorney for the yeshiva, said most of the school’s students aren’t preparing to become religious leaders. Rather, he said, 95 percent go on to practice law, work in business or pursue other non-religious careers.
“Talmudic studies is not religious indoctrination,” he said. “It is study of a legal system; it’s critical (thinking).”
Ed Barocas, ACLU-NJ’s legal director, countered that money from the grant would be used substantially for religious studies. Unlike a religion course taken at a secular university, the yeshiva’s emphasis on Talmudic studies focuses on one religion, he said.
The justices on Monday pushed back on some of the arguments from attorneys on both sides of the case, but did not indicate which way they were leaning.
The court is not expected to issue a ruling for at least a few months.