Students who finish a program at a Bible college in Illinois are not eligible to receive a degree, but are instead given a certificate or diploma.
Bible colleges in Illinois have filed a lawsuit against state education regulators and are seeking the right to award degrees to students who finish their programs. The colleges claim that the Illinois Board of Higher Education is violating the First Amendment rights of “free religious exercise, free speech and ignoring the establishment clause prohibiting a state-sponsored creed,” notes an article in Chicago Tribune.
“The IBHE prevents Illinois Bible colleges from operating and granting degrees unless their teaching and curriculum is approved by the state,” reads a website that provides information about the case. “We believe religious communities should determine the standards and criteria necessary to complete a degree for a ministry vocation.”
"We don't think there can be state regulation of a religious program," said Rev. Jim Scudder Jr., president of Dayspring Bible College, to Associated Press. "If there is, then the state is deciding 'which' religion and breaking the establishment clause of the First Amendment."
The issue in this case is the word “degree.” The schools can issue certificates and diplomas, but Scudder claims they are unable to stay competitive unless they are able to award degrees. Scudder claims that receiving a degree is important to prospective students, especially international students.
An IBHE study found 22 states, including Illinois, regulate religious schools to varying degrees, while 28 states have no regulations. Illinois Sen. Bill Haine tried to pass a bill allowing the Bible colleges to distribute degrees only if they stated that it was not state authorized.
According to the AP article in Chicago Tribune, the bill that Haine tried to pass to give the colleges degree-conferring authority won Senate approval without opposition last session but stalled in the House.
"One would look at it and see immediately it was not an accredited degree by the state of Illinois," Haine said. "My argument was it could not depreciate or confuse an observer ... If an employer decides that it's of value, that's American. It became an argument over the exclusive right to call something a 'degree.'"
The question and worry is that these degrees may lose value if they are deemed unaccredited and not state authorized. Many schools and students worry their efforts may be wasted if employers view their degree as illegitimate and of lesser quality than their state-authorized counterparts. Haine claims it could not depreciate and the value depends solely on the employer, but there is no question that there is a negative train of thought associated with an “unaccredited degree.”
The Illinois Bibles College Association represents approximately 15 Bible colleges in the state and says it will continue to stand by its claim that the prohibition on the issuance of degrees by Bible colleges violates First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and also the separation of church and state as this lawsuit progresses in the court of law.