Justices to hear suit of student denied aid

Religious studies barred scholarship, Wash. says

November 30, 2003|By John A. MacDonald | John A. MacDonald,HARTFORD COURANT

WASHINGTON - Joshua Davey arrived for his freshman year at Northwest College, a small, private institution near Seattle, with a state-financed scholarship and a desire to major in pastoral studies and become a minister.

Within days, Davey ran into a problem: The state of Washington's Constitution prohibits the use of state aid to pay for religious instruction. Davey would have to change his major or give up the scholarship.

"My religious beliefs are the only reason for me to seek a college education," Davey said later, explaining why he declined to change his major at the start of his freshman and sophomore years, when he was again eligible for the scholarship.

Instead, Davey filed suit in federal court alleging that Washington's Constitution violated the section of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the government from interfering with the free exercise of religion. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court is to hear arguments in the case as it tries to sort out conflicting opinions from two lower federal courts.

Experts are watching the case closely because it comes only a year after the high court, in a breakthrough ruling, said the First Amendment allows states to use voucher programs to pay for instruction at religious and secular schools. The Washington case raises the possibility that the court could go even further and require states to provide vouchers to students attending religious-affiliated schools.

"Our position is that state funding for ministerial training raises unique historical concerns," said Steven R. Shapiro, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has asked the Supreme Court to uphold the state constitution. "The stakes in Davey are high."

Jay Alan Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, which is advocating for Davey, said, "By taking this case, the Supreme Court can send an important message to the states that they cannot discriminate against students who choose to focus on religious studies."

Davey arrived at Northwest, a 1,120-student former Bible college in Kirkland, in 1999 with a notice that he met the academic and income requirements for a special scholarship to aid promising students in the first two years of their college careers.

The first sign of trouble came that October, when a college financial aid official told Davey that his choice of a major ran afoul of the state constitution, which contains a specific ban on spending public money for religious instruction. A state statute also prohibits spending state money for students pursuing a degree in theology. The college aid official said there was no difference between pastoral studies and theology.

Davey, citing his religious beliefs, refused to change his major and sued Gov. Gary Locke, who signed the legislation that created the scholarship.

State officials in Washington said they were on sound legal grounds in denying him the scholarship. "The free exercise of religion is one of the most important rights guaranteed to American citizens, but each state should have the right to decide whether its taxpayers will be required to pay for a student's religious instruction," state Attorney General Christine O. Gregorie said.

However the high court case turns out, Davey has moved on to Harvard Law School.

"People really supported me in taking a stand for what I believed in," Davey told an interviewer. "Even people who didn't necessarily believe in the principle at stake really felt I did the right thing by at least standing up for what I felt was right."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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