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

News Release: 
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

The U.S. Supreme court ruled today that states are not required to give tax-payer funded college scholarships to theology students, agreeing with the position argued by the ACLU of Washington in a friend-of-the-court brief.

"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."

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 without violating 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 permitted to use the scholarship at issue to attend religiously affiliated colleges, but not in connection with theology degrees in the pursuit of a particular pulpit.

The rule against state-funded theology degrees is based on the religious freedom clause of the Washington Constitution, which states that no public funds may be spent for religious instruction.

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.