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Regent University, the Christian-based Virginia school founded by Pat Robertson, is at the center of a heated debate now before the Virginia Supreme Court on how far the commonwealth can go to aid a religious institution. Seeking assistance with construction costs on its main campus in Virginia Beach, Va., and its satellite campus in Alexandria, Regent asked the Virginia College Building Authority to issue nearly $55 million in conduit bonds. Under this system, the VCBA would issue bonds, which would be purchased by private investors. The VCBA then would “borrow the money from the investors and turn around and lend it to Regent,” says Ayesha Khan of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The arrangement would have allowed the VCBA to pass along a lower interest rate to Regent. To ensure that the bonds would comply with the law, the VCBA initiated a bond validation proceeding in the Richmond city circuit court. Several Virginia taxpayers, represented by Khan, objected to the issuance of the bonds. The Richmond city circuit court decided that the financial arrangement would violate the separation of church and state. Regent appealed, and the case was heard by the Virginia Supreme Court on June 6. In an interview, Khan says she told the court that “religion pervades Regent’s curriculum.” She compared the current case to a 1991 ruling, Habel v. Industrial Development Authority of the City of Lynchburg, in which the Virginia Supreme Court refused to allow the issuance of industrial development bonds to Liberty University, a private Lynchburg, Va. school, due to its pervasively religious nature. Khan says that “this case is on all fours with Liberty University.” Former Virginia Attorney General William Broaddus, a partner at Richmond’s McGuire, Woods, Battle & Boothe who represents the VCBA, argued that Regent’s case was less egregious than that of Liberty University, according to Khan. Mark Tushnet, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, thinks that the waters may be murkier than either party asserts. Stating that federal church-state cases typically involve direct grants of money, Tushnet believes that if the VCBA were making a direct grant to Regent, the argument against permitting it “would be a substantial one.” However, because the bonds are more indirect, Tushnet admits that the answer is not as clear. Broaddus declined comment, but Khan expresses confidence in the outcome. “I walked out [of oral arguments] feeling strongly that we would win the case,” says Khan.

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