Supreme Court denies divinity scholarships

By Tim Michaels

The Supreme Court ruled that states have the right to withhold taxpayer-funded scholarships from students studying theology, raising questions on the separation of church and state and directly impacting the University.

The decision, made last Wednesday, concerns the eligibility of theology students for state scholarships, as well as the legality of state use of tax dollars to fund school vouchers and faith-based programs

The ruling, Locke v. Davey, said Washington State was within its rights to deny a taxpayer-funded scholarship to a college student, Joshua Davey, who was studying to be a minister. The opinion, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, said that the state’s action did not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

The decision implies that other states that have their own provisions against using taxpayer money towards religious education, such as Illinois, may legally deny state scholarships to students who study theology. This could affect students at the Divinity School who receive such scholarships. “Remember that this case involved undergraduates,” said Winnifred Sullivan, the dean of students at the Divinity School. “The Divinity School has no undergraduates. We do have lots of students who receive government funding—but mostly they are Ph.D. students.”

The Promise Scholarship awarded to Davey stated that the winner of the scholarship must not pursue a degree in theology. That provision is based on an amendment in Washington’s constitution stating that no public money can be applied to support religious studies or religious establishments. This amendment, known as a Blaine amendment, exists in 37 state constitutions, including that of Illinois.

It only denies money to students who are studying theology from a religious viewpoint. Those studying theology from a secular perspective would be awarded the money.

“It has already been established that under certain circumstances such aid may be constitutionally permissible,” said Martha Nussbaum, a professor in the Law and Divinity Schools. “What this case establishes is that it is not constitutionally required.”

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, stating that the state’s action was a clear case of discrimination against a religious minority. The opinion, written by Scalia, emphasizes that the majority opinion simplified the harms done to Davey by denying him the scholarship.

Students and professors at the Divinity School had a range of opinions on the matter. “The Court errs in thinking that pastors only lead churches and do not apply their education to any academic pursuits,” said Audrey Truschke, a fourth-year in the College concentrating in religious studies. “Many great pastors are also academics and thus use their theology training for academic and theological pursuits.”

Others agreed with the majority decision. “The case is a difficult one,” Nussbaum said. “But I think on balance that the majority is correct—in this gray area, states should be allowed latitude to decide.”

The ruling threatens to affect government voucher programs for religious schools. Two years ago the Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that parents were allowed to use taxpayer money to send children to religious secondary schools. “The main upshot is that voucher programs, though permissible, will probably not be viewed as constitutionally required,” Nussbaum explained.