With controversy continuing to swirl around its list of proposed college construction grants, Christie administration officials are refusing to release copies of applications filed by two religious institutions set to receive public dollars for campus building projects. The state Secretary of Higher Education’s Office denied a Star-Ledger request, filed under the state’s Open Public Records Act, to view the applications filed by Beth Medrash Govoha and Princeton Theological Seminary for a piece of $1.3 billion in available state grants.
For weeks, lawmakers and civil liberties groups have been questioning why taxpayers are funding construction projects at religious schools that are not open to students of all faiths. Some legislators have also questioned the process Christie administration officials used to select the two schools for grants.
Tuesday, state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) called on Gov. Chris Christie to provide documents showing how the grant decisions were made, and she and Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) introduced legislation to block the grants if the administration doesn’t comply.
"For the administration to suggest to the Legislature and the public that the manner in which these funds were allocated is not information we are entitled to have is as bewildering as it is unacceptable," Oliver wrote in the letter.
But administration officials said releasing copies of the grant applications filed by the religious institutions would jeopardize the competitive process overseen by the state Secretary of Higher Education’s Office.
"Public release of the applications at this time could give an unfair advantage to applicants and undermine the integrity of the process," said Colin Reed, a spokesman for Christie. "When the process is complete, the secretary intends to make applications public as allowed by law."
Beth Medrash Govoha, an all-male Jewish rabbinical school in Lakewood, is scheduled to receive $10.6 million to build a new library and academic center. Princeton Theological Seminary, which trains Christian ministers, is slated to receive $645,313 for technology upgrades.
The proposed grants have drawn criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and several top lawmakers, who say the public has the right to review the grant applications to decide if the projects deserve the grants.
"Isn’t the competition over?" said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). "There’s no conceivable reason for the those applications to be withheld."
Meanwhile, new questions have emerged about whether the state failed to follow the law in its rush to award the grants. Christie administration officials announced the criteria for applying for the money in January and began accepting nearly 250 applications from colleges March 1, even though the rules had not been formally adopted.
The list of 176 approved projects at 46 colleges and universities was released April 29, a week before the rules were officially published and enacted.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak dismissed any suggestion the process skirted the law.
"The statute gave us more than enough authority to proceed, and the comment period produced only one question, which had no impact on the regulations as proposed," Drewniak said.
The $1.3 billion in proposed grants includes $750 million from a higher education bond question approved by New Jersey voters on last November’s ballot. The remainder of the money comes from a variety of other state bonds available for college construction and renovation projects.
The list of 176 projects was sent to the state Legislature, which has the power to accept or reject the grants.
Oliver said she objects to giving public money to Beth Medrash Govoha and Princeton Theological Seminary .
"I can’t in good conscience sit by and let public money go to schools with such exclusionary policies," Oliver said. "It’s a violation of the state’s constitution."
But Oliver’s bill may be largely symbolic because Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said he has no plans to introduce a similar bill in his chamber. Sweeney said he sees no reason to delay the college building projects because of disagreements over money going to two religious institutions.
However, Sweeney called on state officials to make the grant applications public.
"How can they not release applications?" Sweeney said. "They’ve made their decision, and they should release them."
ACLU-NJ spokeswoman Katie Wang on Tuesday said the state has asked for more time in response to the group’s open public records request to view all applications for the grants, along with the state’s scoring sheets and other records used to select the winners.
Ed Barocas, ACLU-NJ’s legal director, said the organization will consider a legal challenge if the state fails to release the documents.
"The public has the right to know how the determinations are made when you’re talking about spending $1.3 billion," Barocas said.