Two White County residents who are suing Searcy in state court over bonds the city issued to finance projects at private Harding University have filed a related lawsuit in federal court.

The federal lawsuit said the city has issued “tens of millions of low-interest, tax-exempt capital improvement and refunding revenue bonds for the purpose of loaning the money raised from the sale of those bonds to Harding” since 1991. The school is affiliated with the Church of Christ.

The suit filed by Dennis Gillam and Billy Pruitt of Searcy said Harding University is “a pervasively sectarian institution that imposes religious restrictions on student admissions and faculty and staff appointments, enforces obedience to its religious dogma, requires Bible study and attendance at chapel as an integral part of its religious mission, and places religious limitations on how and what the faculty teach.”

The plaintiffs alleged the practice of providing proceeds from lease revenue bonds issued by Searcy’s Public Educational and Residential Housing Facilities Board to projects at Harding University violates their right to separation of church and state under the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The school declined to comment on the lawsuit, but issued a statement saying it “has acted appropriately and within Arkansas and federal statutes governing the sale of these bonds, and we’re confident that when the university’s position is presented in court, the lawsuit will be deemed to have no merit.”

The city’s financial report lists six bond issues for Harding between 1998 and 2005 that total $33.7 million. The debt is not rated.

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