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High Court Takes on Church-State Case

May 20, 2003|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court took up a case Monday that will test how far the government can go in funding religion, agreeing to decide whether states that give college scholarships must pay for a student's training to become a cleric.

The outcome could redraw the line separating church and state in the area of education.

Last year, the justices said states may subsidize children who attend religious schools through voucher programs. The ruling said that did not violate the 1st Amendment's ban on an "establishment of religion." The new case from Washington state asks whether the state must pay for students to study theology if it gives college scholarships.

Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said excluding theology students amounted to unconstitutional discrimination. The ruling relied on the 1st Amendment's guarantee of the "free exercise" of religion.

"This case could open the floodgates to massive taxpayer funding of religious institutions," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Jay Sekulow, counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice in Virginia Beach, Va., says the court should not permit discrimination against religion. He represented Joshua Davey, a Washington state student who won and then lost a state scholarship to study at Northwest College, which is run by the Assemblies of God.

Washington's Constitution , like that in California and most Western states, says, "No public money or property shall be ... applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction." Based on that, state officials said Davey could not use his scholarship if he planned to study to become a cleric.

"By taking this case," Sekulow said, "the Supreme Court can send an important message to states that they cannot discriminate against students who choose to focus on religious studies."

The justices will hear Locke vs. Davey in the fall.

A ruling in Davey's favor could have an effect in many areas, including bus transportation, textbook funding and programs for disabled students.

Meanwhile, the court rejected appeals in two other religion cases Monday.

The city of Burbank lost its bid to continue invocations at City Council meetings that sometimes invoked the name of Jesus.

Last year, a California appellate court said these regular references to Jesus Christ "conveyed the message that the Burbank City Council was a Christian body" and were in violation of the 1st Amendment's ban on an "establishment of religion."

Without comment, the appeal was denied.

The justices also turned away an appeal from a Los Angeles man who said his "Ethical Veganism" should be accorded the same standing as a religious belief or creed.

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