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High court scholarship review may affect laws in 30 states

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court will review a lower-court ruling in favor of a Washington state college student who was denied a scholarship because he planned to major in pastoral ministries.

The state of Washington appealed last year’s decision by a panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that the state had discriminated against religion when it withheld a scholarship to a student because he was seeking a theology degree. The judges voted 2-1 in July to overturn a federal court ruling.

The justices are expected to hear the case in the next term, which begins in October.

Joshua Davey received a Promise Scholarship in 1999 under a Washington law passed the same year that established a program for low- and middle-income students who excel academically. Davey chose to use the $1,125 scholarship at Northwest College, an accredited Assembly of God school in Kirkland, Wash. He chose a double major in pastoral ministries and business.

In October of that year, the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board informed colleges in the state that students who seek a theology degree are not eligible for the scholarship. Northwest College decided a pastoral ministries major constituted a theology degree. Davey continued to major in pastoral ministries, thereby making his scholarship void, and sued the governor and the education board.

The state’s interest in upholding the Washington constitution’s ban on establishment of religion is “less than compelling” in contrast with the student’s interest in a grant based on “objective criteria” set by the state, the appeals court panel wrote in its ruling. The Promise Scholarship is a neutral, secular program, it said.

The high court’s May 19 announcement it would accept Locke v. Davey means the justices’ eventual ruling could impact constitutions in more than 30 states. Supporters of Davey said a decision in his favor could eliminate so-called Blaine amendments in those states.

James Blaine, a politician in the late 1800s, led a campaign that resulted in stronger restrictions against state aid involving religion. Such amendments are included in the constitutions of 37 states, according to the Institute for Justice. Roman Catholics were the primary targets of the campaign and the amendments.

“Blaine amendments are the Jim Crow laws of our time,” said Kevin Hasson, president of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in a written release. “More than a hundred years after they were enacted, at the height of 19th-century nativist, anti-Catholic bigotry, they serve today to disadvantage people of all faiths who seek equal treatment in government-funded education programs.”

Clark Neily, a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, said in a written statement, “The Supreme Court has the potential to strip away the last legal defense school-choice opponents have. They have taken refuge in these discriminatory provisions long enough.”

Opponents of vouchers and other school-choice options have utilized Blaine amendments to attempt to block such programs in four states, according to the Institute of Justice, a leading advocate for voucher programs.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, however, warned against a favorable ruling for Davey. “People who want to enter the ministry should pay their own way, not hand the bill over to the taxpayer,” AU Executive Director Barry Lynn said in a written release. “This case could open the floodgates to massive taxpayer funding of religious institutions.”

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