Supreme Court Theology

By Britt, Brian | The Humanist, November-December 2004 | Go to article overview

Supreme Court Theology


Britt, Brian, The Humanist


College religion courses come in many varieties, with no consistency in labeling. "Theology" at one school may be called "religious studies" at another and at still others missionaries are trained under the rubric of "intercultural studies" While many church-affiliated colleges minimize their denominational identity, the study of theology flourishes at some state universities. According to a recent article, "All God's Children" by Samantha M. Shapiro in the September 5, 2004, New York Times, nondenominational Christian colleges have grown 67 percent in the last ten years.

These conflicting trends reveal unresolved tensions about religion and higher education in American life. Is the study of religion a kind of religious practice? Is a major in religion, or any other subject, really just a form of job training? With its February 2004 seven-to-two decision in Locke v. Davey to uphold a Washington state law denying scholarships to theology and ministry students, the U.S. Supreme Court has calmed the nerves of People for the American Way and others worried about government support for "faith-based" institutions. But it has also codified two major confusions in the law of church and state.

In the case, Joshua Davey was denied a state scholarship available to all undergraduate majors except those majoring in "theology" While Davey's major in pastoral ministries was undoubtedly designed to prepare for a career in the church, the statute in question applies to theology without defining the term, a problem overlooked even by the dissenting opinion of Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. In fact, Davey's college study led him to Harvard Law School, where he is currently enrolled.

The first confusion here is the idea that only "theology" majors cross the boundaries of church and state. Davey attended Northwest College, a fully accredited evangelical institution affiliated with the Assemblies of God. Northwest offers many religiously based undergraduate majors. Students who major in intercultural studies at Northwest, for example, take such courses as "Intercultural Ministries" and "Multicultural Evangelism" The entire curriculum is permeated by the religious identity of the college. As Chief Justice William Rehnquist admits, the vague state law must be read along with the state constitution, which prohibits state funding of degrees that are "devotional in nature or designed to induce religious faith," a standard that could apply to all degrees at Northwest.

The second related confusion is the implication that all theology majors are studying to prepare for the ministry. …

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