The New York Times

February 25, 2004

Supreme Court Approves Denial of Divinity Scholarships


ASHINGTON, Feb. 25 — The Supreme Court ruled today, in a case watched by public officials and educators across the country, that the states can withhold public scholarship money from students pursuing religious studies. The justices decided, 7 to 2, that Washington State had the right to deny scholarship aid to a college student who was studying to be a minister.

The majority rejected arguments that the exclusion of divinity students from the state's Promise Scholarship Program was an unconstitutional burden on the free exercise of religion. The program "imposes neither criminal nor civil sanctions on any type of religious service or rite," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the majority. "It does not deny to ministers the right to participate in the political affairs of the community. And it does not require students to choose between their religious beliefs and receiving a government benefit." Rather, the chief justice wrote, "The state has merely chosen not to fund a distinct category of instruction."

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the dissenters, found that reasoning unpersuasive. "The indignity of being singled out for special burdens on the basis of one's religious calling is so profound that the concrete harm produced can never be dismissed as insubstantial," Justice Scalia wrote. "Let there be no doubt," Justice Scalia wrote at another point. "This case is about discrimination against a religious minority."

The Washington State program awards scholarships on the basis of academic merit and financial need to students who attended accredited colleges in the state, including those with religious affiliations. But it excludes students pursuing degrees in devotional theology.

The case was Locke v. Davey, No. 02-1315, after Gov. Gary Locke and Joshua Davey, who studied religion at Northwest College, which is affiliated with the Assemblies of God. He did not become a minister, deciding instead to attend Harvard Law School.

As Chief Justice Rehnquist observed, two pillars of the United States Constitution — the freedom of expression and the church-state separation specified in the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment — are "frequently in tension. Yet we have long said that `there is room for play in the joints' between them," he added.

Because 36 other states also forbid the public financing of religious instruction, today's ruling had been eagerly awaited. The Bush administration had entered the case on behalf of Mr. Davey.

When the case was argued on Dec. 2, a majority of justices expressed concern about the implications of requiring states to subsidize religious training if they choose to provide college scholarship money for other kinds of study. Justice Stephen G. Breyer called the implications "breathtaking."

Today's ruling overturned a decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a law firm founded by the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, said the ruling "clearly sanctions religious discrimination. In this case, Josh Davey simply wanted to be treated equally on the same terms and conditions as other scholarship recipients," the center's lawyer Jay Sekulow, who argued the case at the Supreme Court, told The Associated Press.

But the People for the American Way Foundation had an opposite reaction. "We are very pleased by the court's decision," said Ralph G. Neas, president of the organization. "No state should be compelled by the federal government to fund religious instruction. Today, the Supreme Court reaffirmed this principle and in the process, strengthened the foundation of religious liberty."

Read the decision.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company