Kenneth Lowe Jan. 30, 2015, 10:48am

A group of Illinois religious colleges is beseeching a higher power for the right to offer accredited degrees.

In a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month against the chair of the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE), the Illinois Bible Colleges Association (IBCA) and its affiliated colleges assert they should be able to award college degrees without the approval of the state’s post-secondary education regulatory agency.

“Plaintiffs do not challenge the State’s authority to regulate secular institutions or religious institutions that offer a secular education,” the Jan. 16 suit says. “Plaintiffs only contend that the State does not have the authority to set standards for religious education and training or to determine qualifications for individuals in ministry positions.”

Also named as plaintiffs in the suit against the chair of the IBHE, Lindsay K. H. Anderson, are Providence Baptist College in Elgin, Dayspring Bible College & Seminary in Mundelein, United Faith Christian Institute and Bible College in Maywood and Civil Liberties for Urban Believers, a Chicago area organization, as well as Leigh Pietsch, who is seeking a degree for religious studies.

Represented by John Mauck and Noel Sterett of Mauck & Baker in Chicago, the IBCA describes itself as “an unincorporated association comprised [sic] of private, post-secondary Illinois Bible colleges that offer Biblical education in preparation for vocations in churches and ministries.”

It goes on to clarify that its affiliated schools offer “programs in religious subjects only” and “do not offer programs in any secular subject.”

“Specifically, students are trained to spread the gospel message: that God loves humanity so much that he sent His son Jesus to die on the cross for our sins, and that whoever believes in Jesus and accepts this free gift of salvation will have peace with God and eternal life,” the suit states, quoting John 3:16 of the Christian Bible.

Claiming religious discrimination under Illinois laws, the plaintiffs cite regulations in 28 other U.S. states that exempt religious colleges from accreditation requirements in order to offer degrees.

The Illinois Private College Act requires all institutions that bestow degrees to meet IBHE’s approval. Among other requirements, it mandates that each course of instruction be “adequate, suitable, and proper,” that adequate facilities are provided and that instructional staff are adequately trained. Other state regulations mandate that instructors have college degrees or postgraduate degrees in their field of instruction.

The plaintiffs also point to the the Illinois Administrative Code, the Illinois Academic Degree Act and the Illinois Private Business and Vocational Schools Act of 2012 in arguing that the IBHE is infringing upon its rights to issue degrees.

In their suit, the plaintiffs are asking Chicago's federal court to declare the various regulations of the IBHE amount to violations of their rights under the Establishment Clause, Free Exercise Clause, and Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Article 1 of the Illinois Constitution and the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“The Illinois education statutes excessively entangle the government in matters of religious activity and constitute a flagrant violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” the plaintiffs assert.

In addition to seeking a declaratory judgment, the suit seeks a thumbs up from the court to create and operate religious post-secondary degree granting educational institutions without state approval.

Court records show the IBHE has until March 23 to file its answer to the suit.

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