The Christian Legal Society's Center for Law & Religious Freedom has asked California's Supreme Court to overturn a lower court's ruling and reinstate equal benefits to religious schools seeking special tax-exempt bond financing.
In 2002, three Christian schools Azusa Pacific University, California Baptist University, and the Oaks Christian School applied with California's Statewide Communities Development Authority for tax exempt bond financing. CSDA is a state agency that provides such tax-exempt financing to educational institutions, including private schools, for projects intended to benefit the public.
CSDA asked a state court to review the proposed transactions with the schools to see if they were permitted by the constitution. However, the trial court ruled that the Constitution of the State of California did not allow religious schools to have access to such financing.
Greg Baylor with the Christian Legal Society contends that California's state constitution discriminates against religious schools by “causing them to pay more to do business than very similar secular institutions.” CLS feels this is wrong, he says, adding, “We think that Christ-centered schools ought to have the same access to these benefits and be able to pursue their missions on an equal playing field with secular and public institutions.”
According to Baylor, virtually every other state in the U.S. extends benefits of tax-exempt bond financing to religious schools. In fact, he notes that federal judicial rulings have often favored equal treatment of religious institutions. But in many cases, state constitutions have presented an obstacle.
The CLS attorney explains, “Even though the advocates of religious freedom have had success with the federal courts, getting them to change how they interpret separation of church and state, there still is this big problem in many states where there's a state constitutional provision that requires discrimination against religion. We need to fight that battle too.”
Baylor adds, “Just because we've had some success on the federal side of things doesn't mean there's not a problem there still is.”
The Center for Law & Religious Freedom has filed a brief with the California's Supreme Court on behalf of the CLS and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The brief recounts the historically discriminatory roots of the constitutional provisions against religious schools and also argues that court interpretations of the provisions over the past several decades have demonstrated the legality of allowing religious schools access to tax-exempt bond financing.
Baylor contends that the essence of religious freedom is government neutrality towards religion. “Giving religious schools the same access to conduit financing is completely consistent with our nationwide commitment to respecting America's religious diversity,” he says.
The Christian Legal Society lawyer asserts that the California lower-court decisions on this issue are another example of an all too frequent occurrence that is, “discrimination against religion in the name of separation of church and state.” He says CLS is hopeful that the state Supreme Court will overturn the lower courts' discrimination against religious schools.