The Catholic University of America

Religious Educational Institutions

Legal Issues of Interest

Columbia Union College v. Oliver, 2001 U.S. App. LEXIS 14253 (4th Cir. 2001)

On June 26th, 2001 the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the District Court that Columbia Union College qualifies for Sellinger Program funds. The case was before the District Court on remand from the appellate court after the District Court initially ruled that Columbia Union College was not eligible for state funds. Columbia Union College is an institution of higher education located in the state of Maryland and affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Sellinger Program is a state of Maryland program that grants public aid to private colleges in the state based on the number of full-time equivalent students enrolled at the institution.

The Maryland Higher Education Commission had repeatedly turned down Columbia Union College's application for Sellinger funds on the grounds that the institution was pervasively sectarian, and thus ineligible for the funds. In upholding the district court's finding that the educational institution was not pervasively sectarian, the Court of Appeals addressed the alteration in the "Establishment Clause landscape" since the Columbia Union College case began wending its way through the courts in 1996.

The Appeals Court in its opinion reviewed the plurality holding in Mitchell v. Helms, 530 U.S. 793 (2000). In Helms the question was whether or not state aid for the purchase of computers and other equipment had the effect of advancing religion when state aid was granted to parochial as well as public schools. Language in the plurality opinion suggested that the doctrine of "pervasive sectarianism" should be abolished. The doctrine of pervasive sectarianism has been used by the courts to deny state aid to religious schools . Focusing on Justice O'Connor's concurring opinion in the Helms case, Chief Judge Wilkinson noted three fundamental guideposts now exist for Establishment Clause cases:

  • the neutrality of aid is an important factor in assessing the public assistance program
  • the actual diversion of government aid to religious purposes is prohibited and
  • presumptions of religious indoctrination inherent in the pervasively sectarian analysis are normally inappropriate when evaluating neutral school-aid programs under the Establishment Clause.

The Court of Appeals reviewed the application of these guideposts to the facts at Columbia Union College, and found the district court was not clearly erroneous when it held the College was eligible for the funds. Significantly, the Court agreed with Columbia Union that the school was entitled to the funds without an examination of the school's pervasive sectarian status. One judge wrote a concurring opinion noting she did not agree with abandoning the pervasive sectarian test absent a clear directive from the Supreme Court, but would have reached the same result even if the test was applied, and could thus concur in the conclusion.

The fact the aid involved was direct aid, unlike the lending of materials and equipment in the Mitchell case, was only addressed in passing by the Court.