Appeal From the Court of Law and Equity for Montgomery County, Equity Division. Hon. Sam E. Boaz, Judge
Brock, J. wrote the opinion. Harbison, C.j., Fones, Cooper and Drowota, JJ., Concur.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Brock
The Clarksville School of Theology is a post-secondary degree-granting school of theology which has not complied with the requirements for degree granting institutions established by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission pursuant to the Post-secondary Education Authorization Act of 1974, T.C.A., § 49-3901 et seq. The Attorney General, as authorized and directed by T.C.A., § 49-3924, brought this action for declaratory and injunctive relief seeking to prohibit the Clarksville School of Theology from granting degrees until it shall meet the requirements of the Act.
The School contends that application of the Act to it would deprive it of its right of free exercise of religion, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and by Art. I, Section 3, of the Tennessee Constitution. The School alleges that its budget will not permit it to meet the criteria of the Act and that it will be forced out of business if required to do so; it alleges further that, if it is not permitted to grant degrees, enrollments of students will decline so greatly that it will be forced out of business. The State contends that the granting of degrees is a purely secular activity and in no way affects the free exercise of religion by the appellants and, therefore, that the School should be required to comply with the law.
Upon an earlier appeal in this case, we remanded the cause to the trial court for further development of the facts. Upon the remand, a full evidentiary hearing was conducted, resulting in a well documented and detailed finding of fact and Conclusions of law contained in a memorandum opinion filed by Judge Boaz, which, in pertinent part, we adopt as a part of this opinion, and is as follows:
"At said hearing there was a full development of facts with an extensive explanation of the procedure under the regulations of the State Post-secondary Education Commission as applied to similarly situated institutions, as well as an explanation of the study procedure, the courses covered and not covered, and the degrees awarded by the defendant School.
"In general, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, according to the proof, followed the standards approved and in use by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, but the application was somewhat less stringent. The Act went into effect on July 1, 1975, and in October, 1975, the Clarksville School of Theology was sent an application form, and eventually, an application was filed by the defendant School on January 15, 1976. The application was denied on January 22, 1976, but the defendant School was permitted to complete its 25th year and it was agreed, according to the correspondence between the Commission and the defendant School, that the defendant would cease operation at that time. The defendant School has, however, continued to operate and to issue post-secondary degrees without approval of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and in violation of the Act.
"The defendant School offered proof, through its President of 28 years, as to the program of study followed by its students and the degrees offered by the Clarksville School of Theology. He testified that the purpose of the institution was to help many preachers, especially Baptist, who had never had the opportunity to receive a theological degree. He stated that the School granted a Bachelor of Theology, a Master of Theology, and a Doctor of Theology. For the Bachelor's degree, for example, he stated that the applicant must (1) have faith, (2) must be a pastor or evangelist, (3) must complete a 'synthetic Bible study' and write a thesis of 30,000 words. He further stated that the School teaches only religion, that no science, mathematics or any other such course was offered. He stated that a Bachelor of Theology degree for example, cost $25 at enrollment, $320 tuition and $30 for a cap and gown. He admitted that the students must attend only three 'seminars' on March 3, June 6, and October 10, this being the only classroom attendance required. He testified that the School must grant education degrees, or the students would not attend. Two additional witnesses testified they would not have attended the Clarksville School of Theology unless degrees were granted. It was shown, incidentally, that last year the School had 80 students and that the largest budget in one year had been $37,000.00. The President of the defendant School testified that it was a non-profit School, that the receipts from tuition were used to maintain the buildings of the defendants.
"It seems to the court that the first question to resolve is whether or not the Post-secondary Education Authorization Act of 1974 was intended to apply to the defendant School. Under Tennessee Code Annotated, § 49-3902, the purpose of the Act is stated as: to provide for the protection, education, and welfare of the citizens of the state of Tennessee, its post-secondary educational institutions and its standards, by: (a) establishing minimum standards concerning the quality of education, ethical and business practices, health and safety, and fiscal responsibility, to protect against substandard, transient, unethical, deceptive, or fraudulent institutions and practices; and (b) authorizing the granting of degrees, diplomas, certificates or other educational credentials by post-secondary education institutions and prohibiting the granting of false or misleading educational credentials....' It would seem that it was the intent of the legislature to include the defendant School, and, there being no words in the Act which would specifically exclude the defendant School, it is held that the Act does apply.
"The most important question and the one most difficult to resolve, due to its delicate nature, is the question of whether or not applying the Act to the defendant School would infringe upon defendant's right to the free exercise of religion as protected by the State and Federal Constitutions.
"The Act sets out the minimum requirements before a post-secondary educational institution will be issued the necessary authorization to operate. Only those institutions so authorized may issue educational credentials or degrees. The Act makes no attempt to regulate or control the religious beliefs, practices or teachings of any institution. The defendant School insists that it cannot operate unless it can issue educational degrees. However, it is not made to appear by the proof that issuing educational degrees is a religious tenet of the defendants, nor that the operation of the School is prompted or required by religious beliefs. In fact, the School is inhibited in no way by the Act as far as religion is concerned, the Act only proscribing the issuance of educational credentials by those institutions failing to meet the minimum requirements. The court holds, therefore, that applying the Act to defendant School does not violate the free exercise of religion clause of the Constitution, State or Federal.
"The School, as its President admits, has not and cannot meet the requirements of the Act, and yet it insists on the right to issue educational credentials, including a Bachelor of Theology, a Master of Theology and a Doctor of Theology. It is the inescapable Conclusion of the court that these are false or misleading educational credentials, as specifically prohibited in (b) of T.C.A., § 49-3902.
"In view of the above decision, an injunction should issue prohibiting the defendants from issuing any ...