ANCHORAGE - A group advocating for the separation of church and state filed a lawsuit against the federal Department of Education over taxpayer money going to Alaska Christian College.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation says that the relatively new, unaccredited school in Soldotna has only 37 students but has received more than $1 million in federal money in the past two years.
The college is affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska. More than 90 percent of its student body is either Alaska Native or American Indian.
"This is just promoting religion," Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, said Tuesday. "I think it is shameful for $1 million to go to this school that only has a proselytizing agenda. It doesn't help anybody. It just helps this particular church's religion."
The lawsuit was filed Thursday in District Court in Madison.
The group hopes to prevent the school from receiving the most recent allocation of $435,000 inserted by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, in a huge federal spending bill passed last November. Young got the school $400,000 the previous year, much of which went to pay for faculty salaries and fund student scholarships.
Young did not immediately return a call for comment about the appropriations.
Alaska Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski also got the school $200,000 for a counseling center, according to the group.
College President Keith Hamilton said Tuesday that the college undergoes a rigorous process before receiving the money.
"As part of this granting process ACC has had to lay out its mission and list how funds would be spent. Throughout this granting process ACC has acted with integrity and honesty and has spent the money in the manner that has been approved by the Department of Education," said a statement issued Tuesday by the college.
Alaska Christian College students can earn a "Certificate of Biblical Studies," while two-year students who also take courses at Kenai Peninsula College can get a "Certificate of Biblical and General Studies."
Alaska Christian College costs approximately $9,000 a year in room, board and tuition. Hamilton said all the students receive some kind of financial aid.
The college helps Alaska Native students make the transition from village life to larger schools, Hamilton said. To do that, the school must go beyond academics and help students with their emotional, spiritual and social lives, he said.
Hamilton said the curriculum recently was expanded to offer courses in physical education, leadership, communications and alcohol assessment.
"I think it's bogus," Gaylor said. "How are they going to learn anything if all they study is the Bible? It is so primitive and so racist, this missionary agenda, pretending they are doing some good for Native Alaskans."
Alaska Christian College is satisfying its purpose, Williams said. Half of the students next year will be matriculating at Kenai Peninsula College. Its students also have had credits transferred to various other colleges and universities, including the University of Alaska Anchorage and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he said.
"We are transitioning them to get to a larger school," Williams said.
Gaylor said that does not answer the question why religion has to be involved. Surely, she said, the larger schools have support services for incoming students.
"You would think that tax money would go to something ... that actually has an educational purpose."
Soldotna is a city of about 3,800 on the Kenai Peninsula, 150 miles south of Anchorage.