Funds held for religious studies

Theology majors facing skeptical parents and difficult course studies now have one more obstacle on the road to their degree: a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court ruled Wednesday (7-2) to uphold a lower court's decision in Locke v. Davey. The ruling gives the states the right to withhold scholarship money from students preparing for religious ministry or studying theology.

In 1999 the exclusion of theology or pastoral majors was challenged by Joshua Davey, who enrolled in a college affiliated with the Assemblies of God and declared a major in pastoral ministries. He tried to use money he was awarded from the state of Washington's Promise program. Although he was otherwise qualified to be a Promise Scholar and to use his $1,125 scholarship toward tuition at Northwest College (even though it was affiliated with a religious group), officials there told him that he could not use the scholarship because of his intended major.

Davey sued, claiming it was a violation of his constitutional right to free exercise of religion. He was represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, a law firm with ties to vocal religious right member the Rev. Pat Robertson. The case lost at the district level, but won at the court of appeals level. The February ruling February upheld the original decision that indicated Davey could not use the scholarship funds because of his major.

In the time between the original suit and the Supreme Court ruling, Davey graduated at the top of his class and is now at Harvard Law School.

State-sponsored scholarships with clauses against pastoral or theological uses are not uncommon. Undergraduate members of the clergy who are planning on studying theology or religious studies can't apply the Wisconsin Tuition Grant to financial aid, said Margaret Zitzer, senior financial aid officer at Marquette.

"The state has merely chosen not to fund a distinct category of instruction," wrote Chief Justice William Rehnquist in the majority opinion of the court.

However, the court allowed the state to fund religious instruction if it chose to.

"There are some state actions permitted by the Establishment Clause but not required by the Free Exercise Clause," Rehnquist said.

Judge Anthony Scalia wrote the dissenting opinion. Scalia is also a devout Catholic.

"What next?" Scalia wrote. "Will we deny priests and nuns their prescription-drug benefits on the ground that taxpayers' freedom of conscience forbids medicating the clergy at public expense?"

Scalia also said he thought the ruling reflected a disgust for religious conviction.

The Rev. John Laurance, chair of the theology department at Marquette said that the department should not be affected because almost all its scholarship funds come from private owners.

Laurance said that the ruling saddened him, but was understandable as the court attempts to clarify the line between church and state.

"People often do not see that the studying theology not only benefits people in their relationship with God, but also benefits the entire community," Laurance said. "This is a discipline which grounds a person in a long term commitment to the their community."

Laurance pointed to religious texts as the source of ethical grounding that many modern laws are based on.

"They give us the grounds and reasoning for why we should love and respect our fellow man," Laurance said.

Law professor Peter Rofes, said he thought that charges the ruling was anti-religious were ungrounded.

"Making a claim like that is like opening Pandora's box," Rofes said. "This is common rhetoric lately and various political groups have been leveling that charge at each other to fuel the political fires."

The ruling could have implications for school voucher programs, such as the one currently in place in Milwaukee. Two years ago, the court ruled in a case from Ohio that extending voucher programs to cover parochial school tuition was allowed. Rehnquist did not address the issue in his ruling.