Ban on financing divinity studies upheld

( [email protected] ) Feb 28, 2004 01:41 PM EST

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that states may refrain the scholarships from theology students preparing for the ministry.

By a 7-2 vote, the justices rejected an appeals court decision that found the state of Washington treated unfairly against a student who was withheld state money because of his major in pastoral ministries.

"Training someone to lead a congregation is an essentially religious endeavor. Indeed, majoring in devotional theology is akin to a religious calling as well as an academic pursuit," wrote Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist for the majority in Locke v. Davey.

"The state has merely chosen not to fund a distinct category of instruction," he said, adding that "training for religious professions and training for secular professions are not fungible."

Public interest law firm American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) represented Joshua Davey, a 23-year-old Christian, who attended Northest College in Kirkland, Washington. He received a scholarship from the state in 1999. Although he was qualified to be a Promise Scholar and awarded $1,125, the money was withdrawn when he declared a double major in pastoral ministries and business management.

The state claimed theological studies or "instruction that resembles worship and manifests a devotion to religion ... in thought, feeling, belief and conduct" were not covered by state scholarship funds.

Mr. Davey sued the state and asserted his constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion, equal protection, and free speech. Although he lost in federal district court in Seattle, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled in his favor and declared the Washington policy unconstitutional in 2002.

Gov. Gary Locke of Washington appealed to the Supreme Court.

New York, New Jersey and nine other states in addition to Washington have scholarship programs that bar the use of the money for religious training. A similar prohibition in Michigan is under challenge in federal court there.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. They objected that the court was reflecting "a trendy disdain for deep religious conviction." "Let there be no doubt: This case is about discrimination against a religious minority," Justice Scalia said.

State Solicitor General narda Pierce told the court, "Washington's decision not to subsidize religious instruction to implement its state constitutional policy of separation of church and state does not infringe on Davey's right to seek a theology degree."

Davey continued his undergraduate degree with honors and without the scholarship, is now in his a first-year student at Harvard Law School.

A federal appeals court said the ban discriminated against religion and fixated only on theological studies.

A executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Barry Lynn thought that the decision was not the court's last word. Its significance lay in the court's rejection of "the effort by religious conservatives to use this as a breakthrough case for their theory of free exercise, that if you fund the secular you must fund the religious."