Supreme Court ruling against theology student will prove costsly
March 17, 2004
Should the government be able to decide how much religion is too much? In Locke v. Davey, decided Feb. 25, the U.S. Supreme Court said “yes,” at least in some situations.
When Joshua Davey applied for Washington state’s Promise Scholarship, he was told that his Pastoral Ministry major disqualified him. The scholarship was available to any student who scored well on standardized tests and attended an accredited school in the state. But Davey’s “devotional” degree supposedly violated the state constitution’s prohibition on indirect funding of religion.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Davey’s favor, following the longstanding principle of neutrality: where the government gives a benefit, it cannot favor or disfavor religion.
However, the Supreme Court ruled in February that Washington does not have to treat ministry students like other students. Relying on the anti-clerical clauses of early state constitutions, Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s majority opinion said states have long refused to directly fund ministers’ educations. Seven justices voted to continue this policy.
But then the Chief Justice tried to square this historical exception with the neutrality principle. “Far from evincing… hostility … we believe that the [scholarship program] goes a long way toward including religion in its benefits.” How? The state allowed funds to go to religious schools! And those schools can require students to attend (a few) religious classes! Apparently, the court thought Davey was lucky to get as much religion as he got. But a theology degree was just too much for the state to have to accept.
This discrimination against “too much” religion will have an immediate impact. Your local officials already know that they cannot base special privileges on religion. But under Davey, they may be able to burden religious activity solely because it is religious.
So, if your school board member knows that if he supports religion too much, the ACLU will win their lawsuit against him. But now, there is a good chance he will win a lawsuit for cutting back on religion. Can you guess which choice will be made?
Or imagine a state legislator who realizes she can trim a few dollars from the state’s deficit by excluding “devotional” practices from an expensive program. I predict that cost cutting will become the order of the day.
As with any court decision, the issue is not quite settled, so pastors, parents, and citizens should still resist this religious discrimination. School voucher supporters have already argued that Davey only applies to direct funding of pastoral studies. The next set of cases will determine whether religious schools can be excluded from voucher programs simply because they are religious. But Davey has breached the wall of neutrality with an ominous precedent: government cannot support religion, but it can burden it if you’ve already had enough.
In the end, Davey provides another example of judges who think faith is a hobby. A little public faith is fine for these lawyers, but too much is embarrassing and dangerous.
Our response as Christians is even more clear. Clearly, we must continue to vote for officials and judges who understand faith, and the special place it has in America . But the best response to the Supreme Court’s embarrassment about faith and prayer is even more faith and prayer — a prayer that more people (justices included) will find out that this “hobby” brings eternal life. (Jonathan Whitehead is a third-year student at the Harvard Law School . He is a member of First Baptist Church , Raytown , Missouri . Since he will soon apply to take a bar exam, he thinks it’s important for you to know that none of this should be thought of as legal advice.)
March 18, 2004