- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2003


The Supreme Court said yesterday it will consider when government money can be spent on religious education, a follow-up to last year’s landmark ruling upholding school voucher programs.

The latest case involves students in training to become ministers or other church leaders. Fifteen states have constitutional bans on state spending for theology classes.

Justices will decide next year whether those bans are trumped by a person’s freedom to practice religion, which is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

The case, involving a Washington state theology student, puts the court back into the highly charged debate over the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

The Supreme Court has been sharply split in recent cases, approving limited use of taxpayer money at religious schools. The latest was a 5-4 ruling in which the court held that government vouchers are constitutional if they provide parents a choice among a range of religious and secular schools.

That case involved taxpayer money to underwrite private or parochial school tuition. At issue now is taxpayer money to help college students.

A Washington state student wanted to use that state’s grant program, known as Promise Scholarship, to help pay his tuition at Northwest College, which is affiliated with the Assemblies of God. The state initially approved Joshua Davey for $1,125 in 1999 but then refused to allow it to go through because he was majoring in theology.

“It’s giving religious studies and theology students almost second class treatment. That’s just not how the First Amendment is supposed to work,” said Mr. Davey’s attorney, Jay Sekulow, with the public interest law firm American Center for Law and Justice.

An appeals court panel ruled 2-1 that Washington state was wrong to withhold the money.

The Supreme Court will hear Washington’s appeal of that decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

“Taxpayers should never be required to subsidize religious instruction. That essential principle is really what’s at stake in this case,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Mr. Davey would have been able to take advantage of the scholarship program, for high-performing low- and middle-income students, had he majored in another subject like business, even at a college with a religious affiliation.

Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire said Washington and 14 other states ban the use of state money to pay for theology training. She said the others are Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Mrs. Gregoire said the ban “does not impair Davey’s free exercise of his religion — he is free to believe and practice his religion without restriction.”

Mr. Sekulow said the young man could not be barred from the scholarship program because of his career choice. The case is Locke v. Davey, 02-1315.

Also yesterday, the court:

• Avoided a church-state question over prayer at city council meetings. The court refused to hear an appeal from the city of Burbank, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb of about 200,000 people. Two lower courts ruled that the Burbank City Council may not begin meetings with sectarian prayers, such as one that invoked the name Jesus Christ and triggered a lawsuit. Irv Rubin, the late chairman of the Jewish Defense League, and Roberto Alejandro Gandara, a supporter of strict church-state separation, sued over the 1999 prayer by a Mormon minister. The case is Burbank v. Rubin, 02-1379.

• Refused to consider an appeal over $2.5 million paid to Jimmy Swaggart Ministries in a failed Baton Rouge, La., real estate development. A lower federal court had ruled last year that the televangelist did not have to return the money. The case is Hays v. Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, 02-1281.

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