A Case of Faith and College Aid ; the High Court Tuesday Considers Whether a Religion Student Can Be Denied State Funds

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When Joshua Davey graduated from high school in 1999, he won a Washington State scholarship to help pay for his college tuition. But when he declared he wanted to major in theology and become a minister, the state retracted its aid offer.

In Washington, only one area of college learning is off limits for a state scholarship: the study of religion as a participant, rather than as an observer. That is because the state constitution forbids spending any state taxpayer money in support of religion.

Tuesday, the US Supreme Court takes up Mr. Davey's case to consider whether Washington State acted properly in upholding its strict separation of church and state, or, instead, violated Davey's federal constitutional right to freely practice his religion.

The dispute is one of the most important cases of the term. If Davey wins, it will mark an important step in eliminating what some analysts view as state-authorized hostility toward religion. Analysts also say such a decision would help smooth the way for school-voucher programs and government funding for faith-based initiatives in virtually every state.

On the other hand, if Washington wins, it would represent a major victory for those who believe that the best way to preserve religious liberty in America is by maintaining strict separation between church and state. Likewise, analysts say a decision favoring Washington would likely complicate school-voucher and faith-based initiatives in the roughly 20 states that enforce a more hard-line view of the church-state divide than the US Supreme Court.

"There is no question that Davey has a constitutional right to practice his religion, including pursuing a degree in theology," says William Collins, senior assistant attorney general, in his brief on behalf of Washington. "However, he does not have a constitutional right to have the state of Washington pay for it."

Lawyers for Davey say the state's position is discrimination against the religious. "By expressly singling out for special disabilities only those students, like Joshua Davey, who are pursuing theology degrees taught from a religious viewpoint, the state has committed a textbook violation of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment," says Jay Sekulow, in his brief on behalf of Davey.

Indeed, what makes the Davey case especially important is its focus, at least in part, on the First Amendment clause that mandates a right to free exercise of religion. "In these cases involving state money going to religious schools the question has always been, does the federal Constitution allow states to spend money in this fashion," says Aaron Caplan of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington State. "This is the flip side of that, where they say the federal Constitution requires that the money be spent in this fashion, and that is a big change. …