A Texas district court judge has ordered a Fort Worth seminary to pay fines totaling $170,000 for issuing 34 theological degrees without first receiving approval from a state education agency.
Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of the Plano-based Liberty Legal Institute, which represented the Tyndale Theological Seminary in court, called the ruling an “outrage” and said it was an attempt by the state to regulate religious curriculum. He has promised an appeal.
“The state couldn’t even teach these subjects” because of federal separation of church and state provisions, Shackelford said in a statement. “Obviously, the state couldn’t indoctrinate people who are going to be in future ministries.”
Nevertheless, Shackelford said, “they think they have the right to tell these groups, these denominations, how to organize their curriculum and the professors” who teach the subjects.
Tyndale officials and officials from two other schools that joined in the suit have said if left to stand, the ruling could eventually cost them students because they won’t be able to issue degrees in theology.
State officials agreed with the court’s ruling.
Tom Kelley, a spokesman for the Texas attorney general’s office, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the state law in the case is religion-neutral.
Calling the law a “simple matter,” Kelly said that “under state law, an institution of higher learning cannot confer a degree unless they’ve been accredited … or obtained a certificate of authority through the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.”
Tyndale is not accredited, Kelly told the paper, adding that by issuing degrees without accreditation, the school was committing fraud.
The 1975 Texas Education Code specifies that only accredited institutions have the right to award bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, the paper said.
Travis County District Judge Paul Davis issued the ruling. The Southern Bible Institute in Dallas and the Hispanic Bible Institute in San Antonio joined Tyndale in the suit.
Davis upheld administrative penalties of $170,000 issued by the education board and awarded $34,000 in attorney’s fees to the state. But he waived a $3,000 fine for Tyndale’s use of the word “seminary” in its name.
Shackelford said the institute believed the court’s ruling was anti-First Amendment.
“The state is violating our clients’ constitutional rights because the government is saying what is permissible and not permissible in teaching religion,” he told the paper. “If government is in control of that, they are controlling religion. They are trying to require state approval of the curriculum, the professors’ credentials and the schools’ financial resources.”
“It’s a frightening proposition that the state, the government, now has control of our seminaries,” he added. “Any seminary [that] doesn’t have its curriculum and its professors approved by the state is fined. So, essentially, the state is in control of religion” in Texas.
The Liberty Legal Institute sued Texas on behalf of Tyndale in 1999 after the education board told the seminary it would be fined as punishment for issuing the degrees without a certificate of authority from the state.
An official with the Texas education board said requiring all institutions of higher learning to be accredited so they can award degrees was a matter of consumer protection.
“When a student invests money, time and effort in obtaining a degree, the student must know that that diploma means something,” said board spokesman James Hoard, as quoted by the Star-Telegraph.