Alaska editorial: Public aid to new Alaska Christian College goes too far

Posted: Tuesday, December 28, 2004

This editorial appeared in Sunday's Anchorage Daily News:

Alaska's congressional delegation has ladled an astonishing amount of public money on a tiny, brand-new religious school in Alaska. The more than $1 million of aid handed to Alaska Christian College is an unwise and inappropriate investment of public funds in a pervasively religious institution.

The Alaska Christian College is religious through and through. Just three years old, it is the creation of the Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska. It was founded, the school's Web site says, to produce ministers who will serve in rural Alaska. "For almost 20 years, no rural Alaskan (primarily native) pastors have emerged in the Evangelical Covenant Church leadership ... there has been no Native/rural Alaskan colleges (sic) serving the needs of students in Alaska who wish to pursue ministry."

Alaska Christian College is, the Web site says, "a Bible centered college" where students will "study and apply God's Word" and "serve Christ." It is a divinity school, pure and simple. Pouring public money into starting such a school forces U.S. taxpayers to support the religious operations of one particular faith. Alaska's congressional delegation might just as well have put a $1 million check in the church collection plate.

The relative size of the federal aid to Alaska Christian is breathtaking as well. The $1 million over two years amounted to roughly half the tiny school's budget during that time. The federal aid amounted to $20,000 per student. The school is so new, it is not accredited and doesn't award degrees. Thanks to efforts by Alaska's congressional delegation, Alaska Christian was the only unaccredited, nondegree school in the nation that got money this year from the federal Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education.

As the federal money pours in, Alaska Christian says it's branching out in a secular direction. A new focus is helping Alaska Natives transition to other colleges or universities.

That's an admirable goal for the congressional delegation to support, but they chose the wrong route when they funneled the money to a brand-new school so thoroughly permeated by a religious mission.

Government doesn't have to slap its checkbook closed any time its money might wind up at a religious college or university. It's one thing for the government to offer loans or grants that any college student can use, even divinity students. Offering low-interest construction loans to any college, religious or secular, can be an appropriately neutral way to encourage higher education. Publicly funding the startup of a divinity school, though, goes too far.

Under Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the U.S. Supreme Court has drastically lowered the wall separating church and state. Even by the court's liberal standards, this huge federal investment in a tiny new divinity school looks like it crosses the constitutional line.

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