New FFRF Legal Victory Saves Public Nearly Half a Million in Misused Funds
Federal funds of $435,000 earmarked for Alaska Christian College, as well as remaining funds from a previous federal grant, were suspended on Oct. 7 by the U.S. Department of Education, as a result of a federal lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The challenge of public funding of the bible college was filed by the national watchdog group on April 21 in U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin. Following receipt of the suspension letter, the Foundation has agreed to drop the case (see agreement).
Alaska Christian College had been earmarked for more than $1 million in federal aid, amounting to an unprecedented $20,000 per student, thanks to "religious pork" from Alaska's over-attentive Congressional delegation. The school targets Native American youths who need remedial help to prepare for college.
The bible college was recently opened by the Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska. It is unaccredited, does not offer academic classes and currently has 31 students. Its tiny student population, mostly Native Alaskans, receive only a bible certificate at the end of one year of bible and Christian instruction.
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 pack a bible and expect a "Christ-focused life."
"We want these suspensions to serve notice on members of Congress that 'religious pork' will not hold up in court. The wall of separation between church and state, while battered, still holds," commented Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president:
"We have rescued nearly half a million in taxpayers' money. Public funds should never have been used to help build a bible college or indoctrinate a vulnerable set of students. These students deserve true academic remedial aid, not biblical indoctrination."
"If the Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska wants to continue insulting Native American students by supplanting Native culture with Christian superstitions," added co-president Dan Barker, who belongs to the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) Tribe, "then they should do so by raising the funds from their own adherents instead of taxpayers."
Sally Stroup, for the U.S. Department of Education, sent the letter of suspension to Keith J. Hamilton, president of Alaska Christian College, notifying him that:
"Our review of the College's activities indicates that (1) the College does not have adequate safeguards to separate clearly in time or location inherently religious activities from the secular activities that could properly be supported by the federal funds, and (2) participation by students in the College's religious activities is not voluntary.
"Moreover, we have concluded that the College has used federal funds for religious purposes. Thus, we do not believe that the College's use of federal funds complies with applicable legal requirements."
Following a July trip to the school, federal investigator David Johnson of the Department of Education submitted a damning report, noting, "One hesitates to describe ACC as a college."
"With few exceptions, the first-year students take a common curriculum that is almost entirely religious in nature."
Typical classes: "Survey of the Old Testament," "Foundations of the Christian Faith," "Worship," and "Camping Ministry."
The college submitted a revised budget in August 2005 to the Department of Education, which the Department rejected, saying the school carries out its purpose "through inculcating religion."
"It is also not the case that the religious instruction is in any sense voluntary for individuals who attend the College," Stroup wrote.
Her letter of suspension cited a federal provision that "inherently religious activities" offered by a private organization receiving a grant from the Department must be separate "in time or location from any programs or services supported by a grant. . . Participation in any such religious activities by beneficiaries of the programs supported by the grant must be voluntary."
Federal funds got the school off the ground by paying for a drug rehabilitation center and other infrastructure. Most of the salaries for staff (who all teach religious courses) was covered by federal grants.
The most recent allocation of $435,000 was inserted in the 2005 spending bill by Rep. Don Young. Remaining unused monies designated for the school in 2004, a sum as yet undisclosed, were also suspended.
The college could still submit a "corrective action plan," but if grants were reinstated, the Foundation would be notified and could go back to court.
The case, handled for the Foundation by attorney Richard Bolton, is Freedom From Religion Foundation, Anne Nicol Gaylor, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker v. Margaret Spellings, Secretary of the United States Department of Education, Case No. 05 C 0247 S.