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Ban on funding religious study upheld

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• Opinion: Locke v. Davey (FindLaw)external link
First Amendment  (FindLaw)external link
Supreme Court
Antonin Scalia
William H. Rehnquist

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday a state scholarship plan that barred theology students from participating is not unconstitutional.

The justices by a 7-2 vote rejected a Washington state student's claim that he was being treated unfairly because of his major.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said, "Given the historic and substantial state interest at issue, we therefore cannot conclude that the denial of funding for vocational religious instruction alone is constitutionally suspect."

The case has important legal implications on church-state grounds. The justices are being asked to decide how far beyond the U.S. Constitution states may go in maintaining church-state separation policies.

Joshua Davey, a 23-year-old Christian, received a Promise Scholarship in 1999 through a Washington state program for needy, high-performing students. When he declared a double major of business and pastoral ministries at Northwest College, a private Christian school outside Seattle, he lost his $1,125 scholarship.

State law prevented using public money for theology studies, which a state court interpreted to mean "instruction that resembles worship and manifests a devotion to religion ... in thought, feeling, belief and conduct."

Davey argues he was treated unfairly. "I believe in a secular society, but people should have the right to study theology," Davey told CNN in December. "You don't have to believe in a particular faith to study it, and I was being told my [college] major was not important, it didn't matter, and that the state wouldn't waste its money on it."

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas sided with Davey. Scalia, in his dissent, said, "Let there be no doubt: This case is about discrimination against a religious minority."

A federal appeals court said the ban discriminated against religion and lacked neutrality since it focused only on theology studies.

The constitutional question examined the First Amendment's ban on states establishing religion, but allowing its "free exercise."

Five states, and a number of religious groups, backed Davey.

Many legal scholars questioned whether states should have to pay for a person to exercise his constitutional rights. Washington state made that argument in its appeal to the Supreme 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," state Solicitor General Narda Pierce told the court.

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

The state's appeal is a follow-up to 2001's landmark case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, in which the Supreme Court upheld the use of state-funded vouchers allowing children to attend private, parochial schools.

Washington is one of 14 states that have so-called "Blaine amendments," which were added to state constitutions a century ago to stop what was perceived as Catholic influence in public schools.

About 37 states, including Washington, have broader laws prohibiting spending tax dollars on religious training.

The case is Locke v. Davey (02-1315).

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