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Theology major’s victory on aid allowed to stand by appeals court

WASHINGTON (BP)–A federal appeals court has affirmed a victory for the religious rights of a Washington state college student.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to review a July decision by three of its members that the state of Washington discriminated against religion when it withheld a scholarship to a student because he was seeking a theology degree. The request for a rehearing by the appeals court as a whole did not receive the votes necessary, the American Center for Law and Justice said it was informed Dec. 5 by the court.

The ACLJ, which represented the student in the case, applauded the appeals court’s action.

“It’s clear that a policy that carves out religious exclusions is not only unconstitutional but financially penalizes students who pursue a degree in theology,” ACLJ Senior Counsel Stuart Roth said in a written statement. “It’s time for the state to accept the facts — the policy is not only unconstitutional but grossly unfair to the people of Washington state.”

The state could appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Dec. 6, the ACLJ filed suit in a similar case in Kentucky. In federal court in Lexington, the organization accused the state of Kentucky of religious discrimination in barring scholarships from being used by students who pursue religion degrees.

Woods Nash, a junior at Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Ky., received funds under the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship during his first two years. After he chose to major in philosophy/religion in October, the state notified Nash it no longer would provide a scholarship for him because his decision on a major violated the program’s rules, according to the suit.

Cumberland College is affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

In the Washington state case, Joshua Davey received a Promise Scholarship in 1999 under a 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 Assemblies 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.

Both the state law, which bars scholarships to students pursuing theology degrees, and the HECB’s policy enforcing it resulted in a “free exercise [of religion] problem,” wrote Judge Pamela Rymer in the panel’s 2-1 decision that overturned a federal court ruling. The law “is viewpoint based, and because its viewpoint is based on religion, it does discriminate against religious ideas,” she said.

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, Rymer wrote. The Promise Scholarship is a neutral, secular program, she said.

In August, the state asked the full Ninth Circuit to review the panel’s opinion.

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