A student who applies for the State of Washington's Promise Scholarship Program and meets the academic and income requirements is notified that he is eligible for the scholarship if he meets the enrollment requirements. Once the student enrolls at an eligible institution, the institution must certify that the student is enrolled at least half time and that the student is not pursuing a degree in devotional theology. The institution, rather than the State, determines whether the student's major is devotional. If the student meets the enrollment requirements, the scholarship funds are sent to the institution for distribution to the student to pay for tuition or other educational expenses. Wash. Admin. Code § 250-80-060.
A student who had been awarded a scholarship under the program wished to pursue a degree in pastoral ministries at a private, church-affiliated college. However, he was informed that to receive the scholarship funds, he had to certify in writing that he was not pursuing a degree in "devotional theology." The student refused to so certify, and he did not receive any scholarship funds. The student then brought an action under 42 USCS § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington to enjoin the state from refusing to award the scholarship to a student solely because the student was pursuing a devotional-theology degree.
Is the government liable for violating the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment for denying funds for certain religious education?
The United States Supreme Court held that, while the federal constitution did not preclude the election of religious instruction using government assistance, the State's broader prohibition reflected its substantial interest against the establishment of religion by funding devotional degrees, and the prohibition was not violative of the federal constitution since the exclusion of such funding placed a relatively minor burden on the student. That the State dealt differently with education for the ministry than with education for other callings was not evidence of hostility toward religion, especially since the scholarship program did not prohibit attendance at religious institutions or a curriculum which included devotional theology courses.