The North Carolina Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the authority of campus police officers at religious colleges to have the power to make arrests.
The ruling reversed a decision by a state appeals court that rejected a drunk driving arrest by a Davidson College police officer. That court -- in a ruling that, had it been upheld, would have disrupted law enforcement efforts at numerous North Carolina colleges with religious affiliations -- found that allowing police officers of religious colleges to make arrests represented a mixing of church and state not permitted under various court rulings. (Davidson is a Presbyterian college.)
But the North Carolina Supreme Court rejected that argument, noting that "campus police officers may enforce only the law, not campus policies or religious rules."
The ruling upheld a North Carolina law, the Campus Police Act, which authorized private, nonprofit colleges affiliated with religious groups to seek law enforcement powers for their police forces. The appeals court ruling rejecting the Davidson arrest was based on earlier court rulings that rejected such rights for religious colleges. But the appeals court noted that the Campus Police Act was enacted subsequent to those rulings. That set up the North Carolina Supreme Court's review of the case.
The ruling applies various tests in U.S. Supreme Court decisions to determine whether granting police authority to religious colleges creates an "excessive entanglement" between church and state. In this case, the North Carolina Supreme Court found that the purpose of the Campus Police Act is "secular." The decision noted that North Carolina grants similar rights to non-religious colleges, that any arrest would have to be reviewed by the state's legal system, and that there have been no allegations of the Davidson police trying to encourage any religious point of view or discriminating based on religion. "The campus police merely enforce secular law -- nothing more, nothing less," the decision said.
The North Carolina Supreme Court rejected the idea that Davidson's Presbyterian ties were such that public assistance in the form of police authority would represent state aid for religion. The bylaws of the college require that 24 of 44 trustees be members of Presbyterian churches, that 80 percent of trustees be active members of a Christian church of some kind, and that all trustees respect Davidson's historic commitment to being "a place where faith and reason work together." However, church leaders have no role in the hiring of faculty members or the admission of students -- and both the student body and the faculty are religiously diverse, with no requirements that people practice any faith.
Davidson, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled, "pursues the predominant purpose of secular education." In making this determination, the Supreme Court said that there was no evidence of Presbyterian control over the college's "policies and practices." The decision added: "Because the campus police agency benefits Davidson's secular rather than religious activities, this case does not give rise to excessive entanglement or have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion."
The college praised the decision, issuing a statement  that "Davidson is gratified by the State Supreme Court's decision, which will allow our campus police officers to protect the campus in the most effective way."
But Allen Brotherton, the lawyer who represented the woman who was arrested by Davidson police officers, told The News and Observer  that the ruling did not give enough weight to the religious requirements for members of the Davidson board -- requirements that Brotherton said defined the college as inherently religious. "The court today approved delegation of the state's discreet power to search and seize its citizens to a group for which membership requires a religious affiliation," he said. "Davidson College is a fine institution, but its legal identity is its board of trustees, which openly discriminates based on religious affiliation."