A Texas Supreme Court decision is being hailed as a victory for religious schools' academic freedom. The court ruled August 31 that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board cannot require religious schools to receive a "certificate of authority" or to submit to accreditation.
Liberty Legal Institute filed suit on behalf of Tyndale Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1999, after the higher education board fined the school $173,000 for issuing degrees and calling itself a seminary. Two years earlier, a new state law combating so-called diploma mills had mandated that law schools, medical schools, technical schools, and seminaries meet 21 standards to operate legally.
But applying the same standards to law schools and religious institutions doesn't work, argued Kelly Shackelford, Liberty Legal Institute's chief counsel. "For example, the (Texas) requirement that you have to have a master's degree to teach at a post-secondary school," he said. "That means Billy Graham couldn't teach evangelism in a Texas seminary."
The Association of Theological Schools (ATS), one of only two religious accrediting agencies recognized by the Texas education board, said accreditation provides quality assurance and public accountability.
But administrators at Tyndale Theological Seminary believe accreditation weakens a school's doctrinal autonomy. It also costs thousands of dollars each year to maintain, a cost the small seminary would have been forced to pass along to students, said Tyndale president Christopher Cone. The seminary enrolls about 300 students annually.
According to ATS spokesperson Nancy Merrill, the organization respects member schools' doctrinal statements and only "asks schools to hold themselves accountable to their ...