By DAVID BORAKS
The N.C. Supreme Court has upheld the powers of campus police departments at religious affiliated colleges and universities to enforce state law, saying they do not violate the U.S. Constitution’s first amendment separation of church and state. In a ruling issued Thursday, the state’s highest court said Davidson College police officers had the right to arrest a driver near campus in 2006 on charges of driving while intoxicated and reckless driving.
The ruling was a relief to Davidson College officials, who had waited more than year to find out if the justices would agree with the N.C. Court of Appeals. The appeals court ruled in August 2010 that Davidson College’s campus police could not enforce state laws because Davidson is a religious institution. The campus police had retained their powers since then while the court considered the case. Thursday’s ruling reinforces the campus department’s powers to stop suspects and make arrests.
On Thursday, a Davidson spokeswoman provided the following statement:
We are gratified by the State Supreme Court’s decision, as we believe it reinforces North Carolina public policy that favors trained police agencies as the best way to ensure public safety on college campuses.
Further, we believe this decision correctly recognizes that Davidson College’s primary mission is education. In reaching its decision, the State Supreme Court rightly determined that Davidson College is an educational institution that is voluntarily associated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Davidson’s affiliation with the PCUSA has never had any influence on the way that our campus police officers carry out their sworn duties.
We are pleased that this decision allows our commissioned campus police officers to continue to protect the Davidson community.
Davidson College’s police department, headed by Chief Adrienne Murray, has nine full-time officers including the chief, 10 part-timers and one administrative person, a spokeswoman said.
The court last March heard oral arguments in the case, known as State vs. Yencer. In 2006, Davidson College police stopped driver Julie Anne Yencer on a road near campus. At first, she pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated and reckless driving. But in 2008, she appealed and challenged the authority of the campus police department, saying the state’s certification of the department violated the separation of church and state.
Campus police departments, including Davidson College’s, are granted the same police powers as public departments by the the state Department of Justice. The N.C. Court of Appeals had sided with Ms. Yencer, citing precedents involving two other colleges as well as the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That ruling said the N.C. Attorney General’s office erred in certifying the department for law enforcement because of its religious affiliation.
The state Attorney General’s Office had appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Davidson College was not a party to the case, although any ruling would have had a direct effect on the college – and possibly other campuses. Last November, lawyers filed a similar suit challenging the powers of Duke University’s campus police after a DWI arrest. Duke has a historical affiliation with the Methodist Church.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court said the state Campus Police Act applies to Davidson’s campus police and those at other religiously affiliated institutions. “We hold that the Campus Police Act, as applied to defendant, does not offend the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the court said.
The Supreme Court noted that precedents cited by the appeals court had been decided before the state’s Campus Police Act became law. The justices upheld the act, whose purposes include “to assure, to the extent consistent with the State and federal constitutions, that [police] protection is not denied to students, faculty, and staff at private, nonprofit institutions of higher education originally established by or affiliated with religious denominations.”
“It is well established that ‘religious institutions need not be quarantined from public benefits that are neutrally available to all,'” the court said, citing a previous ruling. The Supreme Court also noted:
… that “Davidson College is not a church and that its primary purpose is not religious in nature. Davidson College’s secular, educational mission predominates. While a reading of Davidson’s statement of purpose shows that the college is church affiliated, the statement also shows that the College is not a ‘predominantly religious’ institution.
While Davidson College was not actually a direct party to the case, it would have been directly affected by a negative ruling. The college did file a “friend of the court” brief, arguing that while it is “voluntarily associated” with the Presbyterian Church USA, that affiliation “plays no role” in admissions, hiring, or curriculum, and is not a factor when campus police do their jobs. In addition, the college noted that Davidson is “owned” by its board of trustees, not by the Presbyterian Church (USA).
A ruling against the college also could have affected the role of Davidson’s town police on campus. Davidson Police Chief Jeanne Miller said Thursday: “I’m glad for the Davidson campus police, that they can move on and we can continue to work together as we have in the past,” she said.
She said the two police departments have jointly trained on everything from firearms to rapid deployments, and she expects that to increase.
Download the 22-page NC Supreme Court opinion in State v. Yencer, written by Associate Justice Mark Martin (PDF)