The State of Washington offered post-secondary education expenses to academically gifted students through its scholarship program. However, the State Constitution prohibited students from using the scholarship at an institution where they are pursuing a degree in devotional theology.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The State Constitution of Washington provides that a student may not pursue a degree in theology at an institution while receiving the state scholarship through the Promise Scholarship Program. Respondent, Davey, was awarded a Promise Scholarship. He planned to attend a private, Christian college, which was an eligible institution under the Program. When he enrolled and and decided to major in pastoral ministries, the college’s director informed him that he may not pursue such a degree to qualify for the funds.
Does the State law that prohibits students from using the state scholarship at an institution where they are pursuing a degree in devotional theology violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment?
No, excluding academically gifted students who seek to pursue a degree in devotional theology from state aid program does not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Nothing in the State Constitution or in the operation of the Promise Scholarship Program suggests hostility towards religion. Moreover, given the substantial state interest at issue, the denial of funding for religious instruction alone does not go against the Constitution.
When the State offers a benefit to the general public but withholds that benefit from someone solely based on his or her religion, that violates the Free Exercise Clause. That is what the State of Washington had done here. The respondent is not asking for a special benefit to which others are not entitled. He only asks for equal treatment – the right to use his scholarship to pursue a chosen major. Further, the State’s interest cannot be defended as no reasonable observer would view the that the State itself is endorsing a religious practice when it actually excludes students from funding for selecting a religious major.
The interest the State of Washington seeks to further through its State Constitution is legitimate because the Promise Scholarship Program goes a long way toward including religion in its benefits. The Program allows students to attend religious schools as long as they are accredited schools. Moreover, students are eligible to take devotional theology courses under the Program’s guidelines. At the respondent’s college, all students are required to take several devotional courses. The State’s interest in not funding the pursuit of devotional degrees is substantial and the exclusion of such funding imposes only a minor burden on the Program’s scholars.