By a 7-2 vote, the high court declared that a Washington state program that excludes the pursuit of religious studies from a publicly funded scholarship aid program does not violate the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.
“Training someone to lead a congregation is an essentially religious endeavor,” Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the court’s opinion. “Indeed, majoring in devotional theology is akin to a religious calling as well as an academic pursuit.
“Nothing in the Washington Constitution’s history or text or in the program’s operation suggests animus towards religion,” the chief justice wrote for the majority, which included justices Sandra Day O’Connor, John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
The decision is a departure from recent church-state disputes in which the Supreme Court has slowly allowed more state sponsorship of religious activities. The court ruled two years ago that parents should be allowed to use public tax money to send their children to religious schools.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas disagreed with the majority’s opinion, asking in a dissent: “Will we deny priests and nuns their prescription drug benefits on the ground that taxpayers’ freedom of conscience forbids medicating the clergy at public expense?
“In an era when the court is so quick to come to the aid of other disfavored groups, its indifference in this case, which involves a form of discrimination to which the Constitution actually speaks, is exceptional,” Scalia wrote for himself and Thomas.
The case centered on a student named Joshua Davey, who was awarded a state-funded Promise scholarship in 1999. Davey decided to attend Northwest College in Washington with a double major in business and pastoral studies. When the state learned what he planned to study, it rescinded the scholarship money, which amounted to some $1,100 per year.
When Davey learned students who pursue religious studies cannot receive any state-funded financial aid, he gave up the scholarship so he could pursue the major but decided to challenge the decision in the courts. His lawyers argued that the state violated his constitutional right to worship freely.
After graduating from the college, Davey chose to pursue a career in law and is now enrolled at Harvard Law School.
“It was his choice of majoring in theology — preparing to be a minister — that the state said its constitution prohibited it from funding that state money could not go to religious training,” Jan Crawford Greenburg, Supreme Court reporter for The Chicago Tribune, told the NewsHour in December, when the court heard arguments in the case.
“They (Washington state officials) say they’re relying on a provision in the state constitution written in 1889 that prohibits state taxpayer money from going to pay for religious instruction and religious training,” Greenburg explained.
Washington is one of about 37 states to forbid public financing of religious instruction.
Wednesday’s decision has potential implications for President Bush’s plan to allow more faith-based organizations to compete for government money. Lawyers for the Bush administration had argued that the state was wrong to pull the scholarship from Davey.