HURST -- Sitting in his new office -- the sparsely decorated basement of an unassuming 9,000-square-foot building -- Christopher Cone cut to the chase during a discussion of academic accreditation.
"It isn't necessary, and it doesn't benefit anybody," said Cone, 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 Cone called "a key victory for Christian education in Texas."
"It was a monumental thing," Cone said. "The government has no authority to dictate what is quality religious education. The biblical text -- that's our authority; that's our standard."
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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.
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.
Last year, the Education Department introduced rules that required states to have "a process to review and appropriately act on" complaints about 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, 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 has 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 by Dec. 26.
HEB Ministries 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." 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 fined Tyndale $173,000 for issuing the 34 degrees and for using the protected term.
While the dispute was going on, state documents show that Tyndale helped create the Association of Christian Colleges and Theological Schools, apparently based at a Kentucky church. Tyndale then pursued accreditation from it, though Tyndale founder Mal Couch said in 2005 that that was a mistake.
Tyndale also sued, and the fight ended up in 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 is unconstitutional because the state is expressing a preference for accredited religious education, violating the establishment clause separating church and state.
The plurality opinion, written by Justice Nathan Hecht, also found that restricting the language that religious schools use to refer to themselves or to their degree programs violates the freedom of religious exercise.
In a partial dissent, Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson wrote that the implication of the court's decision might be that the state could not "accredit any religious colleges or universities that offer degrees in any religious discipline."
Jefferson said that if, as Justice Dale Wainwright asserted in a partial concurrence joined by Justice Phil Johnson, the statute regulating the terms used to signify degrees, such as bachelor's or master's, violated the First Amendment, any institution -- religious or otherwise -- could award "the equivalent" of degrees.
"Imagine a 'doctor of engineering,' who received his degree from an unaccredited school, hired by the state to inspect and repair bridges," he wrote.
Cone said employers should determine the validity of potential employees' degrees. The Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district reviewed the credentials of its teachers after the discovery that a teacher's master's degree was from an unaccredited Christian school. The district pays a stipend to teachers who have master's degrees and later required the teacher to pay back that money.