Court Mends Part of Church-State Wall

The Christian Century, March 23, 2004 | Go to article overview

Court Mends Part of Church-State Wall


THE IMPLICATIONS of Supreme Court decisions are often in the eye of the beholder. That observation was borne out recently by discussions of legal scholars and a White House official on the court's latest major church-state decision. Yet, on balance, the ruling seemed to replace a few bricks in the wall of separation.

The decision by a surprising 7-2 margin February 25 appeared to bolster provisions in state constitutions that bar direct state support of religious education. However, the faith-based initiative programs of the Bush administration were said by a key advocate to be unaffected by the ruling.

With Chief Justice William Rehnquist writing the majority opinion in the Locke v. Davey ease from the state of Washington, the court ruled that the First Amendment permits--but does not require--states to fired scholarships to religious schools. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

The case pitted Washington state against a resident who was denied a state-funded college scholarship because tie had chosen ministerial studies as part of his double major. The court ruled that the state had the right to deny Joshua Davey the scholarship by appealing to a section of its constitution that forbids government funding of religious instruction.

The justices had said in 2002 that state scholarship programs that include religious schools do not violate the constitutional ban on government establishment of religion if the funding is done indirectly--through genuine private choices of where to spend the scholarship funds. Davey asked the court to decide whether state bans on such indirect funding violate the First Amendment's assurance of freedom of religious exercise.

The court said it didn't, and cited similar state laws from the earliest stages of American history that set more specific limits on government funding of religion than the First Amendment does. Advocates of government funding for religious schools and religious charities weighed in on Davey's side in the case, asking the justices to overturn such state constitutional provisions.

Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said the decision didn't affect the president's efforts to expand government funding of religious charities on the federal level. "It really turned on a unique characteristic of Washington state's constitution," he said in a February 26 telephone press conference. "The decision yesterday did not change at all the landscape for President Bush's faith-based initiatives.

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