Alaska School Funding a Religious Boondoggle

FFRF Lawsuit Challenges "Religious Pork"

"The Bible will be your most valuable textbook."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation's federal lawsuit over public funding of Alaska Christian College received a boost when the Department of Education sent an official there in July to investigate how the grants have been used.

Department of Education program officer David Johnson reported he "hesitates to describe ACC as a college." It offers students "a common curriculum that is almost entirely religious in nature." (See his report.)

The Foundation is suing to halt allocation of the most recent federal grant of $435,000 to the religious school, which bills itself as "an educational ministry of the Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska."

The school targets Native American youths who need remedial help in order to attend college. Yet Alaska Christian College is unaccredited, and offers no degrees or even academic classes.

At the end of a year, students receive a bible certificate.

Courses include: "Survey of the Old Testament," "Survey of the New Testament," "Old/New Testament Electives," "Foundations of the Christian Faith," "Worship," "Biblical Counseling," "Camping Ministry," and "Applied Ministry."

Students can enroll in nearby Kenai Peninsula Community College for a second year if they wish to take any academic classes. However, the director of the community college told the investigator "no ACC students have yet earned an associates degree from his institution."

Highly damning was the president's admission to the investigator "that mistakes had been made in using the '04 earmark funds. No distinction had been made between uses of the funds for religious and nonreligious purposes. The president suggested that they just didn't know that earmark funds could not be spent for religious purposes."

While the president suggested "revising" the budget to remedy this, the investigator noted: "ACC's ability to do so in this matter might be compromised by the lawsuit or by a finding that the institution was so religious in nature that no funds should have been disbursed at all."

An Alaska Christian College brochure exclusively advertises its Christian mission: "Our Mission . . . exists to prepare young people for whole-life discipleship."

It bills itself as "a college with Christ-centered priorities," a "Christian community," and "a college committed to you and your walk with Christ." Students are told to expect a "Christ-focused life."

"At Alaska Christian College you will be shaped by the study of God's Word, equipping you to know Him and to live as His follower. The Bible will be your most valuable textbook. "

The registration form requires students to provide their church and pastor's name and denomination, and to answer this question:

"Please make a personal statement expressing your purpose in making this application to attend Alaska Christian College as well as a brief account of your life and Christian faith."

In his report, Johnson noted that all full-time employees of the school in remote Soldotna, Ala., are members of the Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska, the "college's" sponsor.

The majority of faculty time is spent in teaching religious courses, and their salaries, totaling $250,000, are the largest item in its (mostly public-funded) budget. For example, 85% of the registrar's 2004 salary was covered by the '04 federal earmark, yet he admits spending only 10% of his time as registrar. Most of time is spent as college chaplain and instructor of religious classes.

The president (65% of whose salary is publicly-paid), who is an ordained minister, also teaches religion.

The tiny institute has been earmarked for more than $1 million in federal aid, amounting to $20,000 per student, thanks to Alaska's exceptionally attentive Congressional team.

Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski intervened to get the school hundreds of thousands of tax dollars in previous years. Rep. Don Young inserted the $435,000 religious pork being challenged by the Foundation in the 2005 omnibus spending bill last November. The most recent public grant has not yet been spent.

The institute, which opened in 2001 with 22 students, now has 37 students in 2004-05, "thanks to scholarships provided through the '04 earmark," reports Johnson.

While the dean of students claimed about 45% of the students who actually completed the first-year curriculum had gone on to higher education, "I believe this estimate to be higher than the actual number," Johnson observed, noting there is no data on post-ACC study.

"It's a religious boondoggle," charges Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president. "Not only taxpayers are being cheated. These Native American students deserve respectful academic help, not religious pabulum."

"It's a scandal that members of Congress would brazenly champion such unprecedented funding for a church school," Gaylor said. "This is precisely the kind of 'faith-based' endeavor that should be supported exclusively by private means, not by taxpayers."

The federal lawsuit was filed on April 21 in the U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin. See original press release and complaint.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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