Texas Seminaries Escape State Authority

By September 5, 2007

An Inside Higher Ed article today discusses how seminaries in Texas now have more freedom of self-determinacy, thanks to a Texas Supreme Court decision on Friday. The decision struck down a Texas Education Code provision that required seminaries to attain a “certificate of authority” from a state board or recognition from an accrediting agency in order to award degrees or even call themselves “seminaries.” This state approval included requirements that institutions ensure academic freedom and hire instructors who met state-determined criteria—requirements that some religious institutions claimed violated their religious freedom.

Tyndale Theological Seminary, “a seminary based on the belief in Biblical inerrancy,” was joined by the Hispanic Bible Institute and the Southern Bible Institute in challenging the regulation. Inside Higher Ed explains that “[t]heir suit was narrow in that it did not challenge the use of the regulations with regard to secular institutions or to religious institutions that offer a mix of religious and secular education.”

In deciding in favor of the seminaries, the Texas Supreme Court wrote that “setting standards for a religious education is a religious exercise for which the state lacks not only authority but competence.” Inside Higher Ed explains:

The decision also cited several specific parts of the code that the court found to be unconstitutional attempts to tell a religious college how to operate. For example, the court said that the references to academic freedom were inappropriate because they were “inconsistent with a doctrinal statement like Tyndale’s that is at the core of its mission.”

As Chris has explained at length, while FIRE generally believes that a liberal policy of academic freedom best suits the mission of most universities, we agree that private institutions should be free to determine their own identities. This is especially true for seminaries, whose goals are to advance their faith and produce religious leaders—matters not easily boiled down to objective criteria. The Texas regulation was all the more problematic because it stopped some institutions from even calling themselves “seminaries,” robbing them of the right to self-appellation and implying that the state could regulate what constitutes proper religious training. The original regulation was aimed at preventing the operation of “diploma mills” with no standards or accountability, and still remains in force for most Texas colleges and universities. However, this “consumer fraud” concern, while very valid, should not outweigh a religious institution’s right to freedom of association and to forge a religious identity free from state control.