August 19th, 2010
03:14 PM ET

State court nullifies police powers at religious colleges

CNN Supreme Court Producer Bill Mears filed this report from Washington:

A state-commissioned police officer arrests a motorist for reckless driving. Does the cop's employer matter when it comes to upholding the misdemeanor conviction? A North Carolina court says yes.

The state's Court of Appeals has tossed out the guilty plea of Julie Yencer because the arresting officer works for Davidson College, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). The three-judge panel found that giving campus police power to enforce state laws created "excessive entanglement" with the Constitution's First Amendment ban on government endorsement of religion, or the Establishment Clause.

"We are compelled to conclude Davidson College is a religious institution for the purposes of the Establishment Clause. Accordingly, we hold that the delegation of police power," said the court, "is an unconstitutional delegation of an important discretionary government power to a religious institution."

The ruling, if upheld in the state's supreme court and then the U.S. Supreme Court, potentially could render religious campus police power all but impotent, with officers unable to unilaterally perform their law enforcement duties. Courts in North Carolina previously had limited police power on other religiously affiliated college campuses.

Context surrounding the arrest and the level of religious "entanglement" by the school played key roles in the court's analysis.

Despite being part of a private institution, the Davidson College Police Department is commissioned by the state's attorney general to enforce state laws on or near campus. Yencer had been stopped in January 2006 on suspicion of driving while impaired, and later pleaded guilty, on condition of her right to appeal.

The appeals court this week concluded Davidson has a "strong religious affiliation" in keeping with its "Christian tradition." 80 percent of the school's trustees must be active members of a Christian church. Students, faculty, and staff are not required to attend religious services or hold to a particular faith, but students are required to take at least one religion class.

Faculty and class officer positions also must be filled only by "Christian men and women" or those who would openly "respect" the Christian tradition.

The court somewhat reluctantly noted it was bound by precedent to rule the way it did, while expressing some independent judgment that Davidson perhaps may not be a religious institution, for purposes of the Establishment Clause. The judges noted the school's ultimate mission is to provide students with a "secular education," while maintaining sufficient academic freedom and religious tolerance.

The school can now appeal to the state high court, and perhaps from there to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The justices have in recent years taken a case-by-case approach to Establishment Clause cases. The justices in 1947 said the government needed to be "neutral" but "not an adversary" toward religion. The court has upheld legislative chaplaincies, tax exemptions for churches, and the mention of "God" on U.S. currency and in oaths of office.

At the same time, government-sponsored school prayer is banned, and limits imposed on aid to parochial schools. Some religious monuments and displays on public land - such as crosses and menorahs - have been allowed to stay, others ordered removed.

Legal experts said to their knowledge, the high court has never decided the constitutionality of states designating police power to private, religious-affiliated schools or institution.

The case is State of North Carolina v. Yencer (COA09-01).

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Church and state • Courts • Education • North Carolina • United States

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Mike

    define religion, is capitalism a religion, I would argue so because it a system of beliefs of we live and act, so is mathematics.

    Does anyone care that the "police officer arrests a motorist for reckless driving" not because he was not reckless but because of who the person employer was, not his beliefs. Don't muddy the issue. The spoil brat got away with breaking the law.

    Is there no more citizens arrest if the citizen is a Christian?


    August 20, 2010 at 9:07 am |
    • Selfish Gene

      I bet they wait for the real cops from now on.

      August 20, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
  2. peace2all

    Absolutely..... NO POLICE powers to religious organizations..... EVER.... and FOREVER...

    The court of appeals made the right decision.....


    August 20, 2010 at 3:48 am |
    • JP

      To Mr/Ms peace2all, what allowed you to tell the court's decision right or wrong?

      August 20, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
    • peace2all


      "What ALLOWED ME....?" Would you like to reformulate your question into something that makes any kind of sense...?


      August 20, 2010 at 6:42 pm |
  3. VonMoore

    I think the law is pretty clear. No police power for religious organizations...EVER. Period, end-of-story, don't-even-think-about-it, don't-go-there, etc.

    Due diligence was needed. The state attorney general in question failed a simple question of law. He/she should be disbarred immediately and charged with gross misfeasance in subverting the authority of the United States of America in this manner.

    I applaud the honorable court in putting a stop to this gross abuse of authority by the State AG.

    August 20, 2010 at 2:49 am |
  4. Cumbersome

    I was shocked to read about yet another government official violating the supreme law of the land. Or not too shocked, actually.
    I would bet that the SCOTUS would rule that the state attorney general in question abused his/her authority by delegating enforcement powers to a Const!tutionally ineligible religious group.

    What gets me is that the whole thing will be smoothed over without going back and undoing ALL the illegal actions those fake "cops" did in the past before all this came to light.

    Religious cops...mygodwhatweretheythinking? I mean, really! It's a slam-dunk case...and obvious as hell.

    August 20, 2010 at 12:42 am |
  5. oneStarman - Walla Walla, WA

    Quantum entanglement – the quantum-mechanical description of reality given by its wave function; when the operators corresponding to two physical quantities do not commute – therefore the two quantities cannot have a simultaneous reality. Thus a representative of a Christian College cannot also be the Jack Booted Enforcer.

    August 19, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.