“It isn’t necessary, and it doesn’t benefit anybody,” said Mr. Cone, the president of Tyndale Theological Seminary & Biblical Institute.
The former is certainly true in the case of Tyndale, a private, Bible-based institution with only religious course offerings. The seminary won freedom from state regulation over the granting of degrees in HEB Ministries Inc. v. Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the little-discussed 2007 Texas Supreme Court decision that Mr. Cone called “a key victory for Christian education in Texas.”
“It was a monumental thing,” said Mr. Cone, who has been president of Tyndale since 2006. “The government has no authority to dictate what is quality religious education. The biblical text — that’s our authority; that’s our standard.”
But critics of the decision say it may have opened the door to turning Texas into a breeding ground for unregulated diploma mills, with institutions allowed to grant degrees without approval from the state or a recognized accrediting body.
Mr. Cone said such fears were unfounded. “What you saw rise up immediately after the decision was not diploma mills,” he said, “but Bible institutes that had been struggling and were suddenly able to put themselves out there.”
State officials are now reviewing whether the Texas court determination conflicts with the Obama administration’s broad new set of rules aimed at strengthening the integrity of higher education programs nationwide.
The Department of Education introduced rules in 2010 that required states to have “a process to review and appropriately act on” complaints concerning all higher education institutions — both public and private, including religious institutions — before they can be eligible for federal financial aid.
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which monitors implementation of state policies, currently does not have an official complaint process in place for students who question the value of their institution’s credentials.
In June, the board requested an opinion from Attorney General Greg Abbott on whether it had the authority to put one in effect.
In the same request, the board sought a legal opinion on the requirement to include religious institutions, given the Texas Supreme Court’s opinion. An opinion from the attorney general is expected before the end of the year.
HEB Ministries (the acronym stands for Hurst-Euless-Bedford and has no relation to the Texas supermarket chain) is the church that oversees Tyndale, which has about 200 students enrolled every semester, most of them online.
Tyndale’s run-in with the coordinating board began at the institution’s commencement exercises in June 1998, when graduates received a combined 34 awards with designations like master of arts, doctor of philosophy and “bachelor level diploma in biblical studies.” Tyndale was then, and is now, by choice, unaccredited and does not have a certificate of authority from the state to operate.
According to Texas statute, only colleges with such a certificate or accreditation could grant degrees or their equivalents, or be referred to as a seminary. The state assessed Tyndale a $173,000 fine for the 34 degrees and for using the protected term.
Rather than paying the fine, Tyndale sued and, despite initial court losses, took the fight to the state’s highest court. There, a split decision held that requiring a private religious institution to get authority from the state to grant religious degrees or call itself a seminary was unconstitutional because the state was expressing a preference for accredited religious education, violating the establishment clause separating church and state.