Supreme Court to review religious freedom case

The Texas Supreme Court agreed December 3 to consider whether unaccredited degree-awarding seminaries can be regulated by the state.

The case stems from a 173-thousand dollar fine the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board imposed in 1998 against Tyndale Theological Seminary in Fort Worth for issuing degrees without state authority to do so.

Texas prohibits unaccredited private post-secondary institutions from awarding degrees without state certification. The state also prohibits an institution from using "seminary" in its name if it cannot lawfully award degrees.

Tyndale Seminary, the Southern Bible Institute of Dallas and the Hispanic Bible Institute of San Antonio sued the state claiming that the law allows the government to control the religious training of future clergy members and is unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

"This is a historic case and one of the most important church-state cases to ever come before the Texas Supreme Court," said Kelly Shackelford, chief council for Liberty Legal Institute, which is representing the seminaries.

The state has prohibited unaccredited schools from granting degrees including the words bachelor, master or doctor since the 1970s, when the Legislature sought to shut down degree mills.

Shackelford said adding the prohibition against the word seminary cropped up in 1997 and has had a stifling effect on theological institutions.

By restricting degree-granting powers of post-secondary institutions and restricting the use of academic terms in institution names, the Legislature has assured the institutions meet basic educational standards, the Austin-based Third Court of Appeals decided in 2003.

Tyndale and other schools like it will not seek state accreditation because they oppose state rules on their curriculum, professors and school's financial status, Shackelford said.

"The state has every right to tell us what is a good law school or medical school," he said. "It doesn't have the right to tell us what is good theology."

Tyndale has continued offering classes but has not awarded diplomas since the dispute started, Shackelford said.