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State, Christian college settle constitutional fight

TALLAHASSEE — Settling a federal lawsuit that involved questions about the school's "secular purpose," state education officials will allow students at a Central Florida Christian college to be eligible for a popular grant program.

Florida Christian College filed a constitutional challenge this year that stemmed from the state's refusal to allow students at the Kissimmee school to receive money from the Florida Resident Access Grant program.

But a settlement reached last week will allow four students who were named plaintiffs in the case to receive so-called FRAG grants during the spring semester of this academic year — and will admit the college into the program for the 2013-14 academic year.

Also, the settlement indicates the state Department of Education will revise the way it determines whether religious colleges qualify for the program, including getting rid of what was dubbed a "secularity checklist."

Florida Christian College argued in the lawsuit that the state's refusal to allow it to participate violated First Amendment rights and that students at other religiously affiliated private colleges receive the grants. Gregory S. Baylor, an attorney who represented the college, said after the settlement that "singling out this college and its students for exclusion has been both counterproductive and unconstitutional."

"The government shouldn't discriminate among religious schools, nor should it punish students who are receiving an education at a religious instead of non-religious school," said Baylor, senior counsel with a legal group called Alliance Defending Freedom.

In agreeing to the settlement, the state made clear that it was not admitting wrongdoing. Also, the settlement includes a statement that Florida Christian College "reiterates that its purposes include secular ones."

State law includes eligibility criteria for the FRAG program. Among the criteria is that students attend private colleges that have a "secular purpose, so long as the receipt of state aid by students at the institution would not have the primary effect of advancing or impeding religion or result in an excessive entanglement between the state and any religious sect."

In a court document filed Nov. 1, the state said Florida Christian College had identified itself in a "non-secular institution." The document said students receiving FRAG aid are required to attend colleges with secular purposes and be enrolled in programs that do not lead to degrees in theology or divinity.

"FRAG is neutral towards religion because it allows all religious institutions with a secular purpose to participate and denies all religious institutions without a secular purpose,'' the document said.

But the college, in a court document, said the Department of Education's use of a "secularity checklist" went beyond the requirements in state law. It said the checklist led to looking at issues such as a college's mission statement, admission requirements and faculty restrictions.

FRAG is a long-running program that provides grants to Florida residents to help pay tuition at private colleges. Lawmakers set aside about $79 million for the program during the current fiscal year, with most students receiving annual grants of $2,150, according to the state budget.

The four named plaintiffs in the case will each receive grants of $1,075 for the spring semester, according to the settlement.

State, Christian college settle constitutional fight 11/23/12 [Last modified: Friday, November 23, 2012 8:22pm]
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