Supreme Court to Say When States Can Fund Religious Education

The Supreme Court (search) said Monday it will consider when government money can be spent on religious education, a follow-up to last year's landmark ruling upholding school voucher (search) programs.

The latest case involves students in training to become ministers or other church leaders. Fifteen states have constitutional bans on state spending for theology classes.

Justices will decide next year whether those bans are trumped by a person's freedom to practice religion, which is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution (search).

The case, involving a Washington state theology student, puts the court back into the highly charged debate over the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

The Supreme Court has been sharply split in recent cases, approving limited use of taxpayer money at religious schools. The latest was a 5-4 ruling in which the court held that government vouchers are constitutional if they provide parents a choice among a range of religious and secular schools.

That case involved taxpayer money to underwrite private or parochial school tuition. At issue now is taxpayer money to help college students.

A Washington state student wanted to use that state's grant program, known as Promise Scholarship, to help pay his tuition at Northwest College, which is affiliated with the Assemblies of God. The state initially approved Joshua Davey for $1,125 in 1999, but then refused to allow it to go through because he was majoring in theology.

An appeals court panel ruled 2-1 that Washington state was wrong to withhold the money.

The Supreme Court will hear Washington's appeal of that decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

In an unusual move, supporters of government spending in religious institutions had urged the court to use this case to expand religious liberty protections.

Davey would have been able to take advantage of the scholarship program, for high-performing low- and middle-income students, had he majored in another subject like business, even at a college with a religious affiliation.

Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire said Washington and 14 other states ban the use of state money to pay for theology training. She said the others are: Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Gregoire said the ban "does not impair Davey's free exercise of his religion -- he is free to believe and practice his religion without restriction."

Davey's attorney, Jay Alan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, said the young man could not be barred from the scholarship program because of his career choice. "This anti-religious, viewpoint-based discrimination clearly offends the federal Constitution," he told justices in filings.

Davey recently graduated from the university. His case will be heard in the court's next term, which begins in October.

The case is Locke v. Davey, 02-1315.