Can the government deny a student a state-funded scholarship for majoring in theology? In Locke v. Davey, the Supreme Court says Yes.
Washington state resident Joshua Davey received a state-funded Promise Scholarship in 1999 to apply toward his college degree. The needs-based scholarship for academic excellence was good at any accredited college, including the Assemblies of God-affiliated Northwest College where Davey enrolled. But when Davey announced a double major in business management and pastoral ministries, the state rescinded his scholarship. Officials cited state laws that prohibit public funding of religious instruction. Last fall the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Davey's favor.
Washington is among three dozen states that have laws known as Blaine amendments, which are designed to prevent public funding of religious entities.
"Training someone to lead a congregation is an essentially religious endeavor," said Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the 7-2 majority in a decision handed down February 25.
Don Argue, president of Northwest College, was surprised and disappointed. "This ruling could have dramatic ramifications, as it seems to now allow discrimination based on religion," Argue said in a statement. "This is a sad day."
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of Davey, saw the glass as half full. President Kevin J. Hasson said the high court did not rule on the constitutionality of Washington's Blaine amendment, thus leaving open the possibility of the state permitting Promise scholars to pursue theological degrees.
"We're disappointed about this particular battle, but more optimistic than ever about the war," Hasson told Christianity Today. "Impending court challenges to state Blaine amendments are, if anything, even stronger after [this] decision."
In 2002 the Supreme Court struck down federal barriers to vouchers in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. Justices ruled 5-4 that parents could use vouchers at private religious schools without violating the Establishment Clause as long as the program was neutral toward religion.
"The question really becomes: Do you take the step and say not only can a state enact a voucher-type program [for religious instruction], but that it must do so," said Elliot Mincberg, general counsel of People for the American Way Foundation. "There is a major difference and a major leap being taken in trying to suggest that the right to be free from a burden on religion or a burden on speech turns into a right to have religions affirmatively funded."
Courts are hearing similar cases across the country. In Michigan, where state law prohibits public funding of "theology, divinity, or religious education," Ave Maria College student Teresa Becker sued after the state canceled her scholarship when she declared a theology major.
"I was well aware that I would lose it," said Becker, whose case was stayed pending the Supreme Court's decision. "What it came down to was: Do I want the money, or is my choice of major—what I want to do with my life—more important?"
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