Religious Free Exercise and Financial Aid?

As we have seen in my previous posts, the theme of religious free exercise is evident in many different settings.  There have been a variety of cases to come before the Supreme Court regarding the First Amendment rights of American citizens, and some of them have addressed benefits that an individual may or may not be entitled to with relevance to religion.  Financing a college education has become one of the more daunting tasks for young people in this country, and interestingly enough, there are court cases that even address religion and receiving financial aid.  The case of Locke v. Davey (2004) makes a determination on this issue.

In the state of Washington, the government sponsored a scholarship program that provided funding for individuals attending collegiate institutions.  However, there is a catch; the scholarship funds do not apply to those studying theology, and this provision was based on the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses under the First Amendment.  Washington was attempting to avoid any semblance of establishing a state religion.  Joshua Davey, a resident of Washington, received one of these scholarships to attend Northwest College, which is a small Christian college.  He chose to major in both business administration and pastoral ministries, and his scholarship was revoked on the grounds that financing an individual’s education in the area of pastoral ministries would be outwardly supporting the practice of a specific religion.  This is part of the Blaine Amendment in Washington, which holds that no public funding can be granted to endorse religious exercise, instruction of worship.  The state of Washington said that he would get his scholarship back if he dropped the pastoral ministries major and just went to school in the business realm, but he refused.  He decided to sue on the grounds that the statute was unconstitutional, and the case got all the way to the Supreme Court.

In this case, Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court, and he cites a long train of precedent that upholds the constitutionality of the provisions in the scholarship program.  He also goes on to argue that there is a substantial state interest in refusing to provide state funding for devotional degrees as opposed to degrees in other fields, saying that the actions of states with regards to religion must remain neutral.  In the end, Davey’s claim was rejected, and he did not receive the scholarship he felt that he was entitled to.

According to the case law, the Court made the right decision in this case, and I agree that the Court should stay neutral to religion, avoiding the endorsement of a particular faith.  However, as a college student attempting to finance my own education, I also can see how this ruling could be problematic.  The cost of college without financial aid would be downright crippling to most individuals, and this ruling negatively impacted Davey’s ability to obtain an education and allow him to move up in society as he pursues a career.  Despite this, I think that the Court’s action was appropriate, and this was a ruling that the Court had to make.  If this case had been decided the other way, it would depart from a strong basis in case law, as well as creating a new precedent that could be used to create more problematic rulings.

*All information in this blog post was taken from the case files retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/02-1315.ZO.html

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