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New Jersey State Board of Higher Education v. Board of Directors of Shelton College

Decided: August 9, 1982.


On certification to the Superior Court, Chancery Division.

For affirmance as modified -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Pashman, Clifford, Schreiber, Handler, Pollock and O'Hern. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by O'Hern, J.


Two provisions of New Jersey's education law, N.J.S.A. 18A:68-3 and N.J.S.A. 18A:68-6, prohibit the conferring of baccalaureate degrees by any institution that has not secured a license from the State Board of Higher Education. We hold that application of these statutes to a sectarian college whose religious doctrine precludes state licensure does not violate the First Amendment.


Shelton College is an institution of higher education operated by the Bible Presbyterian Church as part of the church's religious mission. Members of this fundamentalist Christian church believe that every aspect of their lives, including education, must be governed by their faith. Shelton's teachers and students believe that their presence at the college is for the purpose of preparing themselves and others to undertake missions that

their Lord calls upon them to perform. Religion pervades Shelton College. Every academic subject is taught from a Christian fundamentalist perspective and students must conform their behavior to religiously derived codes of conduct. Shelton College is a school of approximately 30 students, but those who attend it cherish its mission.

The procedural pilgrimage of Shelton College to this point of decision began after the school opened operations in New Jersey in the 1950's under a temporary license issued by the State. In 1965, the State Board of Education passed a resolution proposing to terminate Shelton's power to confer baccalaureate degrees because the college had failed to comply with certain minimum requirements. Shelton appealed the Board's action, challenging the constitutionality of N.J.S.A. 18A:68-3 and N.J.S.A. 18A:68-6, the statutes that regulate the award of baccalaureate degrees. Shelton College v. State Bd. of Ed., 48 N.J. 501 (1967) (Shelton I). Specifically, Shelton asserted that (1) any state regulation of baccalaureate degrees abridges the right of free speech guaranteed by the New Jersey and Federal Constitutions; (2) the licensing statute effected an overbroad delegation of legislative power to an administrative agency, in violation of the New Jersey Constitution; and (3) the legislation deprived Shelton of equal protection of law because it contained limited exemptions for institutions that had the authority to confer academic degrees prior to 1887. Id.

The Court upheld the statutes against Shelton's constitutional attacks and affirmed the action of the State Board of Education. Central to the Court's decision was its discussion of the bachelor's degree and the State's interest in preserving the degree's integrity. Chief Justice Weintraub carefully traced the history of New Jersey legislation relating to the granting of baccalaureate degrees, and concluded that

Thus, Shelton I held that the State has a substantial interest in regulating the bachelor's degree and that it may constitutionally prohibit the granting of such degrees by unlicensed institutions.

In 1971, after Shelton I and the conclusion of related litigation, In Re Shelton College, 109 N.J. Super. 488 (App.Div.1970), the State Board of Higher Education revoked Shelton's temporary license to award degrees in New Jersey. Shelton College moved its operations to Florida where it obtained a license to confer bachelor's degrees in that state. It has continued to operate there up to the present time and, as late as May 1981, applied to Florida officials for renewal of its license.

In February of 1979, Shelton College submitted a new application to the New Jersey State Board of Higher Education, seeking authorization to award baccalaureate degrees in Biblical Literature, Christian Education, Elementary Education, Secondary Education, English, History, Business Management, Music Education and Natural Science. Before it secured such authorization, however, Shelton began to offer credit-bearing courses in New Jersey that it represented would lead to a bachelor's degree. On November 15, 1979, the State Board of Higher Education brought suit in the Superior Court, Chancery Division, alleging that Shelton's New Jersey operations violated N.J.S.A. 18A:68-3 and N.J.S.A. 18A:68-6 which prohibit the conferring of degrees or the furnishing of instruction for the purpose of conferring degrees, except by licensed institutions. The State Board sought an injunction restraining Shelton from engaging in any form of educational instruction, offering any credits, or granting any degrees until it obtained a license authorizing it to do so. The Chancery Court granted a preliminary injunction to that effect.

On November 19, 1979, Shelton College and various students and faculty members instituted an action under 42 U.S.C.

ยง 1983 in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. The federal plaintiffs alleged that application of the New Jersey licensing statutes to Shelton College violated rights guaranteed them by the First, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. They sought both declaratory and injunctive relief.

The District Court issued a preliminary injunction, enjoining the State from taking any action to prevent Shelton College from engaging in religious teaching or educational activities, or from publicizing or advertising these activities.*fn1 Although the court granted partial injunctive relief to the federal plaintiffs, it abstained from deciding whether the New Jersey licensing statutes apply to religious institutions, such as Shelton College. The District Court stayed the federal action to permit the state courts to resolve this issue.

In February 1980, the State Board appealed the District Court's order to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and the federal plaintiffs cross-appealed. While the federal appeal was pending, the state court action proceeded to trial in June 1980. At this trial Shelton College presented its federal constitutional claims. The Superior Court upheld the constitutionality of the licensing statutes as applied to Shelton College and on December 10, 1980 entered a permanent injunction which, among other things, restrained the college from awarding course credits or degrees in New Jersey without a license from the State Board of Higher Education. Shelton filed notice of appeal to the Appellate Division.

On April 14, 1981, a divided Third Circuit upheld the Federal District Court's order granting injunctive relief, and approved the court's decision to stay further federal proceedings pending completion of the state court action. On May 18, 1981, the District Court entered a revised preliminary injunction that

prohibited the State Board of Higher Education from enforcing or implementing the Superior Court's order of December 10, 1980, "until such time as the Supreme Court of New Jersey definitively construes the New Jersey statutes and regulations which are the subject of this action." New Jersey-Philadelphia Presbytery of the Bible Presbyterian Church v. New Jersey State Board of Higher Education, 514 F. Supp. 506, 515 (1981). We directly certified the matter on petition of the parties. 88 N.J. 500 (1981).*fn2


Before addressing the constitutional issues raised by this appeal, we first consider whether N.J.S.A. 18A:68-3 and N.J.S.A. 18A:68-6 apply to religious institutions such as Shelton College. Read literally, these statutes clearly encompass Shelton College. They require that all institutions -- regardless of religious character or affiliation -- obtain a license before offering degree programs or conferring degrees. Nonetheless, defendants urge us to adopt a narrowing construction of these statutes -- excluding Shelton from their ambit -- so as to avoid the constitutional issues that otherwise would emerge. Defendants suggest that this result could be achieved by employing a standard of statutory construction announced by the United States Supreme Court in NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 440 U.S. 490, 99 S. Ct. 1313, 59 L. Ed. 2d 533 (1979). In that case the court declared that any interpretation of a statute that "would give rise to serious constitutional questions" must be rejected unless the construction is compelled by "the affirmative

intention of the Congress clearly expressed." Id. at 501, 99 S. Ct. at 1319, 59 L. Ed. 2d at 541. Applying this standard, the Court held that the National Labor Relations Act does not extend to lay teachers employed by parochial schools, even though the act's general terms include such employees. The Court concluded that application of the National Labor Relations Act to church-operated schools would implicate the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment but that there existed no affirmative expression of legislative intent sufficient to compel the constitutionally troublesome interpretation of the act.

Four dissenting justices assailed the Court's opinion, stating that the majority had "seemingly invented . . . a canon of statutory construction . . . for the purposes of deciding this case." The dissent would have adhered to the principle of statutory construction set out in ...

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