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
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. …