College student sues Washington state claiming religious-liberty violations

Thursday, January 20, 2000

A college student has sued Washington state officials, claiming they violated his religious liberties by denying him a state scholarship because he is pursuing a theology degree.

Joshua Davey, a freshman at Northwest College in Kirkland, Wash., was awarded a Washington Promise Scholarship in August. The state scholarships provide up to $1,585 for two academic years of higher education for state high school graduates from low- and middle-income families.

In October, however, the Northwest College financial director received a letter from the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board stating that students pursuing religious degrees were not eligible for any state funds, including the Promise Scholarship. Davey was then told that if he certified in writing that he would not pursue the pastoral ministries major he had declared, his scholarship check would come through.

Instead, citing “sincerely held religious beliefs,” Davey refused to change majors and hired the American Center for Law and Justice, a law firm founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, to challenge the state's denial of the Promise Scholarship.

In his Oct. 12 letter to Northwest College, John Klaeik, associate director of Washington's Higher Education Coordinating Board, said that according to the state's attorney general, government funding could not be provided to students majoring in religion.

“Although the Appropriations Bill creating this program is silent on the issue, the State Constitution is clear regarding the separation of church and state,” Klaeik wrote. “We have consistently interpreted this constitutional provision as prohibiting state financial aid funds for students who are pursuing a degree in theology.”

Washington's Constitution contains a provision that “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction.”

The ACLJ's 14-page complaint, filed in federal court, claims that Washington officials, including Gov. Gary Locke, are violating not only Davey's right to freely exercise his religious beliefs, but also the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

“The policy, on its face and as interpreted and enforced by the Defendants, burdens Mr. Davey's free exercise right to study theology and pursue a career in the ministry in accordance with his sincerely held religious belief,” the complaint states.

Furthermore, the group argues that state policy discriminates and is hostile toward religious students, because for Davey to obtain the state scholarship he would have to “give up his religious belief [that he should] study theology.”

According to the lawsuit, the establishment clause of the First Amendment “affirmatively mandates that Defendants cannot treat Mr. Davey as a second-class citizen merely because he is pursuing his religious conviction to study theology.”

Kevin Theriot, senior ACLJ counsel, said in a prepared statement that Washington's actions “represent a very troubling display of religious discrimination and hostility.”

Linda Schactler, deputy director of the Higher Education Coordinating Board, said that the board was only adhering to state law prohibiting state funding of religious instruction when it withheld Davey's scholarship.

“As far as I know, Davey never contacted us to seek advice on how to keep the scholarship,” Schactler said. “I would have told him to wait and declare his major when he became a junior.”

Schactler said the attorney general would deal with the constitutional issues regarding the scholarships.

Howard Fischer, Washington's senior assistant attorney general, said that “we have a state constitutional provision that provides a wall of separation of church and state.”

“I assume that the hurdle created by the state Constitution would be more difficult for the plaintiff to overcome than the federal Constitution,” he said.

Fischer's suggestion that Washington's Constitution may be a higher hurdle for Davey to overcome than the federal one is exemplified in a similar challenge in the 1980s to a Washington state vocational aid program.

In the mid-80s, a blind college student at a private Christian college in Spokane, Wash., sued state officials for denying him financial assistance under a state vocational rehabilitation program because he was studying to become a minister. In 1984, the Washington Supreme Court upheld the state's decision to deny the student financial aid because granting such aid “to a person studying to be a pastor, missionary, or church youth director violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.”

Two years later, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Washington court decision, saying the state funds were not intended to advance religion, but to help disabled students obtain an education and therefore did not violate the First Amendment. “The program is in no way skewed towards religion and creates no financial incentive for students who undertake sectarian education,” Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote for the court in Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind. “On the contrary, aid recipients have full opportunity to expend vocational rehabilitation aid on wholly secular education, and as a practical matter have rather greater prospects to do so.”

The high court, however, also remanded the case back to the Washington Supreme Court, saying that it was “of course free to consider the applicability of the 'far stricter' dictates of the Washington State Constitution.”

In 1989, the Washington Supreme Court did just that and concluded that the student could not receive state financial aid.

“Here, the applicant is asking the State to pay for a religious course of study at a religious school, with a religious career as his goal,” the state high court ruled. “This falls precisely within the clear language of the state constitutional prohibition against applying public moneys to any religious instruction. In this case, Inland Empire School of the Bible is a Christian college. The applicant's course of study is designed to prepare him for a career promoting Christianity. His Bible study and church courses necessarily provide indoctrination in the specific beliefs of Christianity. Thus, for the Commission to provide vocational assistance funds to the applicant” would subvert the state Constitution.

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