Religious Exclusions In Scholarships

Dec 11, 2002 08:03 AM EST

KIRKLAND Wa.-- Marking a victory for the religious rights of a Washington State College student, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to review a July decision by three of its members that the state of Washington discriminated against religion when it withheld a scholarship to a student because he was seeking a theology degree. The American Center for Law and Justice, which represented the student, was informed by the high court on Dec 5 regarding the insufficient votes of the appeal courts to request a rehearsal.

"It's clear that a policy that carves out religious exclusions is not only unconstitutional but financially penalizes students who pursue a degree in theology," ACLJ Senior Counsel Stuart Roth said in a written statement. "It's time for the state to accept the facts -- the policy is not only unconstitutional but grossly unfair to the people of Washington State."

On Dec. 6, the ACLJ filed suit in a similar case in Kentucky, accusing the state of practicing religious discrimination by withholding scholarships to students in pursuit of religious degrees. According to the suit, Woods Nash, a junior at Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Ky., received funds under the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship during his first two years. However, the state notified Nash it no longer would provide scholarship for him after he chose to major in philosophy/religion in October, since his choice of major violated the program’s rules. .

In the Washington state case, Joshua Davey received in 1999, a promise scholarship – funding given to low and middle-income students who excel academically. Davey opted to use the $1,125 scholarship at Northwest College, a theological seminary in Kirkland, Wash, choosing to double major in pastoral ministries and business. In October of that year, the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board announced that theology degrees were not listed under acceptable majors for the scholarship. Since a pastoral ministry major constituted a theology degree, Davey was denied his scholarship. Consequentially, Davey sued the governor and the education board.

Both the state law, which bars scholarships to students pursuing theology degrees, and the HECB's policy enforcing it resulted in a "free exercise [of religion] problem," wrote Judge Pamela Rymer in the panel's 2-1 decision that overturned a federal court ruling. The law "is viewpoint based, and because its viewpoint is based on religion, it does discriminate against religious ideas," she said.

The state's interest in upholding the Washington constitution's ban on establishment of religion is "less than compelling" in contrast with the student's interest in a grant based on "objective criteria" set by the state, Rymer wrote. The Promise Scholarship is a neutral, secular program, she said.

In August, the state asked the full Ninth Circuit to review the panel's opinion.

By Pauline J.