Court: State can't deny aid to theology students
Seattle Times staff reporter
A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that Washington state cannot deny financial aid to college students who study religion, because to do so violates the First and 14th amendments.
The 2-1 decision by a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stunned many of the state's higher-education administrators and constitutional lawyers. They now are trying to figure out the effect the ruling may have on the state constitution's provision for separation of church and state, including whether it will open the way for private-school vouchers.
The appeals panel ruled that the state infringed on the religious rights of Joshua Davey when it took away his state scholarship three years ago after he decided to study theology at Northwest College in Kirkland.
In 1999, Davey, a graduate of University High School in Spokane, had been among the first recipients of the state's "Promise Scholarship," financial assistance for low- and middle-income students with good grades to attend any college in Washington, including private schools. He was a valedictorian who had scored a perfect 800 on the verbal section of the SAT.
The scholarship, more than $1,000 for the first year, could be renewed a second year. After he enrolled in school, he announced a double major in business administration and pastoral ministries, which prepares students to become ministers.
The state Higher Education Coordinating Board (HECB), which oversees many state scholarship programs, took away his scholarship money, citing a state provision that no "aid shall be awarded to any student who is pursuing a degree in theology."
Davey sued. He lost his case in U.S. district court two years ago but appealed.
In ruling in his favor, the San Francisco based-court said the state's scholarship criteria are discriminatory and "suppress a religious point of view."
The criteria "single out" students who pursue theology degrees and force "them to make the difficult decision of choosing to accept funding at the expense of forgoing religious study."
The court said the state had violated Davey's rights under the First Amendment — free exercise of religion — and 14th Amendment — equal protection under the law.
"We were quite surprise by the ruling," said Marcus Gaspard, executive director of the Office of the HECB. "This affects all financial-aid programs."
"I feel vindicated," said Davey, 22, who will become a senior at Northwest College this fall. "I really felt singled out and discriminated against." Davey said he now plans to go to law school.
The total value of Davey's scholarship, more than $2,000, has been in an escrow account and will be released to him, unless the state appeals the decision.
Michael Shinn, the assistant attorney general, said the state will review the case and that no decision has been made on whether to appeal.
In her dissenting opinion, Judge Margaret McKeown wrote that this was not a case about free speech but about funding — and that the state did not violate Davey's right to study religion but denied him only public funding.
The state constitution strictly defines the separation of church and state, and in the past, judges in Washington have blocked public dollars from going to religious causes or institutions, several constitutional-law experts said.
The 9th Circuit ruling may now change the way judges in Washington interpret separation of church and state, several law professors said.
For example, Mark DeSorrest, an instructor at Gonzaga School of Law, a private Catholic school, said the ruling marks a crucial victory for voucher advocates.
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that public tuition subsidies may be used in religious schools, the decision was widely seen as not affecting Washington because of its strict constitutional separation of church and state. But the 9th Circuit ruling opens the door for a court challenge, said DeSorrest, who specializes in First Amendment issues.
"It sets a strong precedent that the state is no longer allowed to discriminate on the base of religion," he said.
Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or email@example.com.