Court: Texas law intrudes on religious freedom

AUSTIN — The Texas Supreme Court reversed lower court decisions today and ruled that state restrictions on what unaccredited religious institutions can call themselves and their education training violate the First Amendment.

The court said banning an institution like the Tyndale Theological Seminary in Fort Worth from using the term “seminary” in its name violates the Constitution.

Three religious organizations waged the legal fight. Tyndale, one of the schools, was cited in 1998 for violating a law that requires seminaries to be accredited and prevents unaccredited institutions from awarding degrees. It was fined $173,000 by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Plano-based Liberty Legal Institute represented the schools and argued before the court in 2005 that the state has no business regulating how pastors are trained.

State law requires institutions to meet certain standards if they call themselves a college, university or seminary. The court ruled that the law as it pertains to seminaries intrudes upon religious freedom.

“This decision is a huge victory for all seminaries not only in Texas but nationwide,” said Kelly Shackelford, the institute chief counsel. “Seminaries are going to now be free to be seminaries … The shackles are off.”

The case is not about secular teaching and degrees, but about purely theological education, he said. Shackelford said the ruling means the plaintiffs can try to recover attorneys’ fees incurred in the case.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office represented the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and told the court that the state law aims not to regulate religion but only the quality of post-secondary education in Texas.

The law was written to crack down on degree mills that issue certificates but require little or no coursework.

The Attorney General’s Office had no immediate comment on the ruling.
Stephanie Elsea, spokeswoman for the Higher Education Coordinating Board, said the ruling could have “far-reaching” implications but that the board would withhold further comment until it has time to review the entire decision.

Under the law, the Tyndale seminary, operated by HEB Ministries Inc., was fined for issuing 34 degrees without the coordinating board’s approval.

Tyndale was founded in the early 1990s to offer biblical education for those entering the ministry in churches and missions. By 1999 it had a small campus and enrollment of 300 to 350 students, with most of those taking correspondence courses, the court opinion states.

The Southern Bible Institute in Dallas and the Hispanic Bible Institute in San Antonio joined in the suit seeking to overturn the fines and the law.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday August 31, 2007.
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