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ACLU Sues New Jersey Over Funding For Religious Schools

NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) - New Jersey's plans to award more than $11 million to an all-male Jewish school and Princeton Theological Seminary violates state law and should be stopped, civil liberties groups said in a complaint filed Monday.

The ACLU and its New Jersey chapter, along with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, filed the lawsuit in state court in Trenton.

They claim the grants violate the state constitution's prohibitions against using taxpayer money for places of worship and giving preference to a religion, as well as violate its stipulation that public money be used for public purposes. In addition, the suit says, the grant awarded to the Beth Medrash Govoha, an all-male Talmudic studies center in Lakewood, violates state law against discrimination based on gender.

ACLU Sues New Jersey Over Funding For Religious Schools

"We support freedom of religion; however the government has no business funding religious ministries,'' Ed Barocas, legal director of the ACLU of New Jersey, said in a statement. "Taxpayers should not foot the bill to train clergy or provide religious instruction, but the state is attempting to do exactly that.''

The ACLU argues the funding is not only improper, but illegal.

"This kind of funding clearly violates the separation of church and state," Udi Ofer, executive director of the group's New Jersey chapter, told WCBS 880's Peter Haskell. "That is not the role for taxpayer money. They could do it on their own dime but they cannot do it on the public dime."

A spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie did not return multiple requests for comment Monday.

The state announced last spring a list of higher education projects it plans to fund through a $750 million bond issue voters approved in November. Higher education institutions had to apply for the grants, and if the legislature takes no action on the grant awards by Friday, the schools will receive the money. The state made additional bond money available for higher education construction, bringing the total to $1.3 billion.

The projects include a $10.6 million grant to Beth Medrash Govoha, to be used for a library and research center and new academic space in an existing building. The school is described by the U.S. Department of Education as "a program that prepares individuals for advanced Talmudic scholarship and research.'' It is one of the largest schools of its kind in the world. A spokesman for the school did not immediately return a request for comment.

Princeton Theological Seminary would receive $645,323 to upgrade library information technology and a training room and to remodel a conference room. The school is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church; its mission statement says it "prepares women and men to serve Jesus Christ.'' A school spokeswoman declined to comment.

The ACLU says 20 percent of the funds allocated for private institutions are slated for the two religious schools.

"New Jersey should support our state colleges and universities, but shouldn't do so at the expense of church and state,'' Ofer said.

The Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey and Gloria Schor Andersen, a Hebrew tutor from Voorhees Township, are also plaintiffs. A hearing is scheduled for Friday in Trenton.

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