Because of its likely rebuff to a key progressive principle, Espinoza is potentially the most significant Supreme Court case this term.
In light of a claim that the IRS has been harassing religious institutions (link no longer available), I would add an anecdote to further burnish bureaucratic bigotry.
For a few months late in the last century, I worked for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), evaluating the worthiness of courses as acceptable for college credit and, more seriously, whether prospective institutions of higher education might set up shop in the Commonwealth. A senior colleague handled public institutions such as the University of Virginia; I got to examine private for-profit institutions and some other private ones.
I flagged a couple for-profit institutions for flagrantly fraudulent practices. Then I was assigned some interesting institutions that applied to offer courses for credit—one an Evangelical Christian college that featured a classical core of courses, with a focus on public service. The new school sought to attract home-schooled students. The other was a Catholic graduate program that sought to offer degrees in psychology, based on the study of theology and classical metaphysics, in addition to traditional psychological scholarship. In other words, they would recover the original meaning of psychology—the study of the human soul.
After examining the appropriate documents, I gave a strong endorsement of the college, noting that they required what any liberal arts college would require, plus more (the study of Latin, for example). Any requirements concerning religion were an extra option for the institution. Likewise, following a site visit, I urged approval for the psychology program, arguing again that the addition of theology and philosophy complemented a more conventional curriculum.
Though with some supercilious skepticism about the religious elements, my colleagues and supervisor accepted my positive recommendations. The problem here is that some of my colleagues—none of whom are still with SCHEV—might well have categorized these colleges as fundamentally religious institutions. This happened in at least one case I know of. That would have meant that these institutions’ courses could not be counted for college credit in Virginia and have effectively prevented accreditation. SCHEV, I later found out, has a notorious reputation for delaying and denying approval of institutions. (Ultimately, accreditation is given by SACS, one of several regional accreditation associations; this cartelization of higher education and their inflicting of illiberal political standards on colleges is an enormous scandal but a somewhat different subject.)
The attempts of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to separate public from religious institutions in order to protect the integrity of both are at best a distant ancestor of this lamentable bureaucratic chokepoint. (See Philip Munoz’s God and the Founders for a study of the founders’ differing views on religious establishment and free exercise.) Secular-minded bureaucrats armed with Ph.D.’s can prevent religious institutions from gaining approval to offer courses for college credit. We see here the same attitude that led the President of the College of William and Mary to order the removal of the cross from its chapel.
The two institutions I approved have subsequently performed great service, though not without controversy. The Evangelical Christian college is Patrick Henry, in Purcellville, some of whose graduates I have had the pleasure of working with in government. The Catholic psychology program is the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, in Arlington, which boasts world-class scholars among its faculty and a stimulating lecture series.
When I questioned the credentials of some for-profit institutions, I was admonished that SCHEV didn’t have the resources to perform thorough studies of them. Yet, with the religious schools, there seemed to be a free hand to consign them to higher education oblivion. I suspect such a free hand is also wielded, with accompanying snicker, throughout governments at all levels.