Quick look at Locke v. Davey

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Case name: Locke v. Davey.

Background: Washington state offers a scholarship program to its needy high school students, with one exception: Students may not use their scholarships toward a major in theology. The state justifies the exception as conforming to its state constitution, which prohibits spending public money toward “any religious worship, exercise or instruction.” Joshua Davey, who qualified for the scholarship, sued after being told that his plan to major in theology at Northwest College made him ineligible for the scholarship. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Davey that the state program amounted to a form of discrimination against religion, violating the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Ruling: The 7-2 majority found that Washington state's exclusion of theology majors from its scholarship program does not violate the free-exercise clause. Though states may fund theology majors without violating the establishment clause, the majority ruled, they do not have to under the free-exercise clause. The majority said the case involves the “play in the joints” between the two clauses, and placed emphasis on the power of states to make their own choices in this area. It viewed the state's interest in not subsidizing religious training as a valid, historically based interest not animated by anti-religious sentiment.

Verbatim: “Training someone to lead a congregation is an essentially religious endeavor. Indeed, majoring in devotional theology is akin to a religious calling as well as an academic pursuit. … Davey's claim must fail. The State's interest in not funding the pursuit of devotional degrees is substantial and the exclusion of such funding places a relatively minor burden on Promise Scholars. If any room exists between the two Religion Clauses, it must be here. ”

Line-up: Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

First Amendment impact: This decision is likely to be viewed as a setback to the school-voucher movement. The Court in 2002 found that states could allow school vouchers to be used toward religious-school tuition, and voucher advocates hoped Locke v. Davey would make that mandatory. The majority dashed those hopes, and could give encouragement to state legislators who do not want vouchers to extend to parochial schools. This case was also viewed as a significant test of the so-called Blaine Amendments of the 19th and early 20th century, in which critics say anti-Catholic sentiment led states to pass anti-religion amendments to their state constitutions. The Rehnquist opinion makes short shrift of this issue by accepting the contention of the state of Washington that the constitutional provision at issue was unrelated to any Blaine-style Amendment. Instead, the majority cited older “antiestablishment” traditions in U.S. history that argued against using taxpayer funds to support religious leaders.

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