The American Civil Liberties Union, the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have filed a lawsuit to block the award of more than $11 million in taxpayer funds to two religious higher-education institutions.
It is difficult to imagine the ACLU losing this one.
The institutions - Beth Medrash Gohova in Lakewood and the Princeton Theological Seminary - are clearly religious organizations engaged in ministerial training. The state's own higher-education website describes Beth Medrash Govoha as a "Rabbinical School" and the Princeton Theological Seminary as a "Theological Institution."
The New Jersey Constitution - in Article I, Paragraph 3 - clearly states that taxpayer dollars may not be used "for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry."
And the money - a whopping $10.6 million for a new library and academic center at Beth Medrash Govoha and $645,323 for library information technology and a training room at Princeton Theological Seminary - is clearly public money. The bulk of it comes from a $750 million higher-education bond issue approved by voters in November. The money, combined with four other grant programs, is funding 176 college building projects around the state.
Furthermore, the ACLU also contends that the state's Law Against Discrimination prohibits the awarding of public funds to the all-male Beth Medrash Govoha.
And particularly objectionable is how this came about - and why.
As we noted in an editorial in May, the original legislation authorizing the bond act was quietly amended - at the urging of lobbyists hired by Beth Medrash Govoha - to remove language excluding from consideration "any educational institution dedicated primarily to the education or training of ministers, priests, rabbis or other professional persons in the field of religion."
And how did Beth Medrash Govoha come to have so much clout with the Christie administration and Democratic legislative leaders? Well, the head of the school, Rabbi Aaron Kotler, has endorsed Gov. Chris Christie, which is critical to Christie winning the votes of Lakewood's large and close-knit Orthodox Jewish community. Kotler also accompanied Christie to Israel last year.
We suspect the money for the Princeton Theological Seminary was added simply as political cover - as if two constitutional wrongs make a right.
The Christie administration has refused to fully comply with ACLU requests under the Open Public Records Act for the details of the grant-selection process. And the Legislature, which had until Friday to reject the grants from the $750 million bond act, has chosen to allow the grants to go forward.
Some church-state disputes are complicated. This one isn't. There's no way public funds should be supporting these two religious institutions.