Illinois Bible colleges sue over state regulation
by Dave Bell
Posted 1/24/15, 11:50 am
Three years ago, Rachel Vasquez enrolled in Dayspring Bible College and Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., north of Chicago. She wanted to attend a college that “would teach the truth from the Word of God,” and she thought she would receive a degree after completing her studies in biblical education, with an emphasis on missions.
Now, the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) is trying to prevent the school from conferring degrees. Perhaps a certificate of completion or a diploma, but not a degree—yet “without a degree, my future job opportunities could be limited,” said Vasquez, a native of Tampa, Fla.
The IBHE’s attempt to require state oversight and credentialing of Bible colleges prompted the Illinois Bible Colleges Association to file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court on Jan. 16. The suit, which contends that the board’s action would violate the colleges’ First Amendment rights, cites the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech while noting that the Establishment Clause prohibits excessive state entanglement in religion.
“We think [the board’s attempt to regulate Bible colleges] is a threat to our future,” said Jim Scudder Jr., president of Dayspring, which was founded in 1982 as a post-secondary religious ministry of Quentin Road Bible Baptist Church in Hawthorn Woods, Ill. “We don’t want [state officials] to have oversight over the way we teach religion and theology.”
Filing the lawsuit on behalf of the state’s 15 Bible schools “will give us more freedom down the road,” said Scudder, who favors regulation of medical and technical fields, but points out that 28 other states currently exempt Bible colleges from state regulations and allow them to issue degrees.
State education officials, though, sent a letter last fall to Scudder alleging that his college has promoted associate, bachelor’s and master’s programs “in fields that extend beyond religion or theology.” The state officials ordered the college to remove references to those degrees in marketing materials, and said that “current and prospective students must be informed that Dayspring programs of study are not IBHE-recognized degree programs.”
In the lawsuit, the Bible colleges say they do not challenge the state’s authority to regulate secular institutions or religious institutions that offer secular education but add that the state “does not have the authority to set standards for religious education and training or to determine qualifications for individuals in ministry positions.”
Additionally, the Bible colleges say in the suit that the exemption currently granted them is too narrow and ask that the schools also be able to teach secular subjects—including business, trade, or vocational courses—“so long as the education incorporates significant religious or faith-based instruction and is part of a comprehensive program to equip the student to integrate his or her religion or faith into his or her life, career, or work.”
John Mauck, a Chicago lawyer representing the colleges in the case, said the issue of whether they can award degrees “is more than semantics. Words matter hugely. These students spend four years studying, but they can’t even get a degree.”
Dave is a writer and photographer for a newspaper in Greenville, Ill.