The New York Times

August 10, 2003

Courts Weighing Rights of States to Curb Aid for Religion Majors


TRAVERSE CITY, Mich., Aug. 5 Teresa Becker made a costly decision when she chose after her sophomore year to major in theology. She had received $1,200 in state scholarship money for her freshman year at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Mich., in 2000. The next year she received $2,750 in state aid. Last June, she was promised that amount for her junior year, too.

A month later, when word of her choice of a major reached state officials, they wrote her a new letter. "Students enrolled in a course of study leading to a degree in theology, divinity or religious education are not eligible to receive an award," it said, paraphrasing a state law. "Your award has changed from $2,750.00 to $0.00."

Ms. Becker sued. On July 21, Judge George Caram Steeh of Federal District Court in Detroit issued a preliminary ruling in her favor, saying the state had probably engaged in religious discrimination. Judge Steeh ordered the state to put her scholarship money in escrow until there is a final court ruling.

A case much like Ms. Becker's from Washington State will be decided by the United States Supreme Court in its next term. A trial in Ms. Becker's case has not been scheduled and may never be needed; the Supreme Court case will probably effectively decide hers as well.

Eleven states prohibit aid for the study of theology. In addition to Michigan and Washington, they are New York, New Jersey, Alabama, Louisiana, Missouri, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wisconsin, according to a supporting brief filed in the Supreme Court by five state attorneys general.

The Washington case is in some ways the narrower one. The State Supreme Court interpreted theology to mean "instruction that resembles worship and manifests a devotion to religion and religious principles in thought, feeling, belief and conduct." In Washington, then, teaching about religion as an academic subject, as opposed to religious teaching meant to inspire devotion, is fine.

The Michigan law is seemingly broader, and its original purpose is not well understood. In an e-mail message to an Ave Maria College official in January, the director of the state's scholarship office, Diana Todd Sprague, wrote: "I am not clear on why this was part of the statute since it was established in the 60's. It has been described to me as having to do with the separation of church and state, but I am not certain." Jason Allen, a Republican state senator from here, called the history of the law murky. Senator Allen has introduced legislation to allow state aid for students studying theology.

Ronald Muller, the president of Ave Maria College, a Roman Catholic college, said its theology major is part of its liberal arts curriculum. Theology "is an academic discipline like philosophy, English literature or the classics," he said.

Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which opposes state financing for most religious education, said the Michigan statute might be too sweeping. "The statute should probably read that persons preparing for the ministry or religious education are excluded," Mr. Lynn said.

The plaintiff in the Washington case, Joshua Davey, acknowledged that he is preparing for a career as a Christian minister. Ms. Becker, on the other hand, says she does not know what career she will choose. "I am not seriously considering any sort of religious life," she said in an interview at her parents' home here. But she said that her interest in theology is not only academic. "I selected theology as my undergraduate major," she wrote in court papers, "based on my sincere religious conviction that this course of study will help me pursue my vocation in life, to know, love and serve God and my fellow men."

Ms. Becker, 21, is spending the summer in this resort town where she grew up, on the shore of Lake Michigan. She is direct and serious, and she talked about the central role her Catholic faith plays in her life. "I was raised in it," she said. "I love it. It influences how I act around others, how I treat others. It's my salvation. In a sense, it's everything."

She is working at a doctor's office to make up for the loss of state aid, and she volunteers with the local anti-abortion advocacy group. In the fall, she will start her senior year. She said she has heard nothing from the state about a fourth year of aid. Ms. Becker said the scholarship law might have discouraged some of her fellow students at Ave Maria from choosing theology as their majors. That did not stop them, she said, from taking theology classes.

In a brief to the Supreme Court, Mr. Davey's lawyers said that having scholarship decisions turn on what major a student declares is a little odd. A student "could take numerous theology courses, paid for by state grants, so long as his major was something else (like psychology or math)," the lawyers wrote. But a student who declares a theology major would get no state money for an entire year "even if the student takes nothing but language, literature, philosophy and science," they said.

Ms. Becker's lawyers at the Thomas More Law Center, a conservative public interest law firm in Ann Arbor, Mich., emphasized what they called the unfairness of the distinction the Michigan law draws. "An atheist committed to scientific materialism may study the Big Bang, the laws governing the subsequent organization of matter and, ultimately, the amphibian from which man is said to have evolved all without forfeiting his scholarship," they wrote in court papers. "But Teresa must forfeit her scholarship if she wishes to discuss the Uncaused Cause that created the stuff of the Big Bang, and the notion that the laws that govern creation are not merely statistically improbable but so irreducibly complex that the heavens proclaim the glory of the Lord."

Aaron Caplan, a staff lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington State, said that states should be free to decide what kinds of study to support. They can, for instance, offer scholarships for medical school but not law school. And while court decisions hold that states are free to offer scholarships for religious study, Mr. Caplan said, it does not follow that states should be required to do so.

The Washington case and Ms. Becker's boil down to one proposition, he said: "A state may legally choose not to fund people's religious education." Ms. Becker saw it differently. "The state is violating people's rights to religious freedom," she said. Her fellow students have expressed support. "They're praying for me and rooting for me," she said.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company