- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2000

Spokane student Joshua Davey is determined to become a minister.

A high school valedictorian who made perfect grades, Mr. Davey, now 19, earned a badly needed, state-funded scholarship to the state of Washington's Northwest College, a small private school in Kirkland, affiliated with the Assemblies of God.

Shortly after Mr. Davey started freshman classes last fall, state education officials withdrew his financial-aid award, saying his decision to major in religion violates a new policy under the state constitution's mandate of separation of church and state.

Mr. Davey, who was forced to work 25 hours per week clearing tables in a local restaurant to pay for his full-time course load, has since filed a lawsuit, charging that the state has been heavy-handed in applying the establishment clause, discriminating against religion and trampling on his federal rights.

"Does the state of Washington's Constitution trump the national Constitution, which protects religious speech? I think it's pretty obvious that it does not," argues attorney Kevin Theriot of the American Center for Law and Justice, a public-interest law firm that has taken up Mr. Davey's case.

"The state is free to provide for greater separation of church and state, as long as that doesn't infringe upon rights ensured by the federal Constitution, like free speech and the right to free exercise of religion," Mr. Theriot said.

Carolyn Busch, executive policy adviser to Washington Gov. Gary Locke, acknowledges that her state's constitution "has a very strict separation of church and state," particularly in its education system.

Mr. Davey, she adds, was an exemplary student who qualified for and earned the state's Promise Scholarship, a new program for high-achieving, low-income students developed by Mr. Locke. State education officials, she said, were simply upholding the state's constitution when they revoked the scholarship, something they are bound to do.

"It was simply a matter of his choice of degree that excluded him from eligibility for state financial aid," she said. "We try to be as open as we can on our policies, but when a student chooses a theology degree, then they are not eligible for state financial aid, and Promise Scholarships are one such form of financial aid."

Mr. Davey's unusual educational plight hinges on his faith and a higher calling. Had he waited to declare his major, as many freshman do, the state money would have been his to use.

"They said if he'd undeclare his major and say he wouldn't pursue his calling as a pastor, he could get the scholarship," Mr. Theriot said. "He said 'no.' He's a kid who really stands on principle."

The burden of a looming lawsuit has not kept Mr. Davey from his college studies. He made all A's in his first two semesters, carrying a dual major of religion and business administration, Mr. Theriot said.

The case is still in discovery, and Mr. Theriot says he plans to ask a judge to rule on the constitutional issues before a trial. Mr. Davey's lawsuit, which names the governor and leaders of the State Higher Education Board as defendants, asks for unspecified damages and requests that the court declare the state's policy unconstitutional.

Mr. Theriot says the state has wrongly singled out theology as the only field of study not eligible for a state scholarship.

John Kafentzis said in an editorial published in the Spokesman-Review, the main newspaper in Spokane: "Giving students a scholarship to a college with ties to a church and expecting none of them would choose a religious degree is a little like sending someone to engineering school with the stipulation that they only take liberal arts courses."

Mr. Theriot said he believes the ban on religion majors is too broad.

"Nobody can study theology, even if you are doing it purely for secular motives. If an atheist wanted to study theology just to prove, for instance, how it's been detrimental to society as a whole, the atheist couldn't do it."

He adds: "The state simply cannot reject a qualified applicant because of that student's designated course of study. That kind of discriminatory treatment is completely unacceptable."

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