ACLU Welcomes Supreme Court Decision Not to Force States to Fund Inherently Religious Education

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
February 25, 2004 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union today welcomed the decision by the Supreme Court to let states decide for themselves whether to grant scholarship money to theology students, which the ACLU said undermines one of the core legal arguments in the President’s so-called “faith-based initiative.”

“The Supreme Court said today that states can’t be forced to use taxpayer dollars to train students for the ministry,” said Steven R. Shapiro, ACLU Legal Director. “By reaffirming that the failure to fund religious activity is not the same as religious discrimination, today’s decision undermines a key argument that has been used by supporters of so-called faith-based initiatives.”

The ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Locke v. Davey, arguing that the Constitution did not require the state of Washington to pay for ministerial training, even as part of a general scholarship program. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, held that states could withhold the scholarships and not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Only Justices Thomas and Scalia dissented.

“Training someone to lead a congregation is an essentially religious endeavor,” Justice Rehnquist wrote for the majority. “Indeed, majoring in devotional theology is akin to a religious calling as well as an academic pursuit.”

In the case, Joshua Davey appealed the denial of a Washington state “Promise Scholarship” that he had planned to use to train for an evangelical ministry. The scholarship is a grant awarded by the state to high school seniors who graduate in the top 15 percent of their class and whose parents’ income falls below a certain level. It is offered for the first two years at any college in Washington.

The dispute arose in 1999, when Davey sought to use the scholarship toward his studies in the pastoral ministry at Northwest College, which is affiliated with the Assemblies of God church, a Pentecostal denomination. Students are only permitted to use the scholarship at issue to study religion as an academic subject, such as comparative religion or the history of religion, not in the pursuit of a particular pulpit.

“The court recognized that states should be able to continue their longstanding tradition of providing extra protection for religious freedom under their state constitutions,” said Aaron H. Caplan, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Washington and principal author of the ACLU brief. “It would have been a dramatic departure from 200 years of constitutional tradition for the Supreme Court to rule that taxpayers are required to pay for clergy training.”

Currently 36 states have laws providing such protection for religious freedom; a number of them filed briefs in support of the Washington law.

The brief was filed by the ACLU along with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, People for the American Way Foundation and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The brief can be found online at /node/37355

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