Wednesday, February 25, 2004

State money can't be used for religious training

I was somewhat surprised when the opinion came down this morning in Locke v. Davey (pdf). A Washington state college student received a scholarship from the state under a program which prohibited the scholarships from being used for devotional studies. Since the student Davey was intending on pursuing a degree in pastoral ministry, the state refused to allow him to use their money to help pay his education expenses.

By a vote of 7-2, the Supreme Court said that the State of Washington could do this. Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote the opinion, and concluded that:

[W]e can think of few areas in which a State's antiestablishment interests come more into play. Since the founding of our country, there have been popular uprisings against procuring taxpayer funds to support church leaders, which was one of the hallmarks of an established religion.

Since the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of religion, the State can refuse to provide funds to train pastors or other church leaders. This makes perfect sense to me, but I imagine some people will be fairly upset about it, including Justices Scalia and Thomas (pdf).

When the State makes a public benefit generally available, that benefit becomes part of the baseline against
which burdens on religion are measured; and when the State withholds that benefit from some individuals solely
on the basis of religion, it violates the Free Exercise Clause no less than if it had imposed a special tax.


I'm not a First Amendment scholar by any stretch of the imagination, but this is a particularly interesting case, because it demonstrates the interplay between the two prongs of the First Amendment's protection of religion :

(1) Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
(2) or prohibiting the free exercise thereof


Rehnquist and the majority see the scholarship program as threatening an establishment of religion by providing state funds for religious training. Scalia sees the denial of funds as prohibiting Davey's free exercise. Read the whole opinion if you're interested in this area.

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