February 25, 2004

    Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

    The State of Washington established the Promise Scholarship Program to assist academically gifted students with postsecondary education expenses. In accordance with the State Constitution, students may not use the scholarship at an institution where they are pursuing a degree in devotional theology. We hold that such an exclusion from an otherwise inclusive aid program does not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment....

    Respondent, Joshua Davey, was awarded a Promise Scholarship, and chose to attend Northwest College. Northwest is a private, Christian college affiliated with the Assemblies of God denomination, and is an eligible institution under the Promise Scholarship Program. Davey had “planned for many years to attend a Bible college and to prepare [himself] through that college training for a lifetime of ministry, specifically as a church pastor.” To that end, when he enrolled in Northwest College, he decided to pursue a double major in pastoral ministries and business management/administration. There is no dispute that the pastoral ministries degree is devotional and therefore excluded under the Promise Scholarship Program.

    At the beginning of the 1999—2000 academic year, Davey met with Northwest’s director of financial aid. He learned for the first time at this meeting that he could not use his scholarship to pursue a devotional theology degree. He was informed that to receive the funds appropriated for his use, he must certify in writing that he was not pursuing such a degree at Northwest.  He refused to sign the form and did not receive any scholarship funds.

    Davey then brought an action against various state officials (hereinafter State) in the District Court for the Western District of Washington to enjoin the State from refusing to award the scholarship solely because a student is pursuing a devotional theology degree, and for damages. He argued the denial of his scholarship based on his decision to pursue a theology degree violated, inter alia, the Free Exercise, Establishment, and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment, as incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment....,

   The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment provide: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These two Clauses, the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, are frequently in tension. Yet we have long said that “there is room for play in the joints” between them. In other words, there are some state actions permitted by the Establishment Clause but not required by the Free Exercise Clause.

    This case involves that “play in the joints” described above. Under our Establishment Clause precedent, the link between government funds and religious training is broken by the independent and private choice of recipients. As such, there is no doubt that the State could, consistent with the Federal Constitution, permit Promise Scholars to pursue a degree in devotional theology, and the State does not contend otherwise. The question before us, however, is whether Washington, pursuant to its own constitution, which has been authoritatively interpreted as prohibiting even indirectly funding religious instruction that will prepare students for the ministry,  can deny them such funding without violating the Free Exercise Clause.

    Davey urges us to answer that question in the negative. He contends that under the rule we enunciated in Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, the program is presumptively unconstitutional because it is not facially neutral with respect to religion. We reject his claim of presumptive unconstitutionality, however; to do otherwise would extend the Lukumi line of cases well beyond not only their facts but their reasoning. In Lukumi, the city of Hialeah made it a crime to engage in certain kinds of animal slaughter. We found that the law sought to suppress ritualistic animal sacrifices of the Santeria religion. In the present case, the State’s disfavor of religion (if it can be called that) is of a far milder kind. It imposes neither criminal nor civil sanctions on any type of religious service or rite. It does not deny to ministers the right to participate in the political affairs of the community. And it does not require students to choose between their religious beliefs and receiving a government benefit.  The State has merely chosen not to fund a distinct category of instruction.

    Justice Scalia argues, however, that generally available benefits are part of the “baseline against which burdens on religion are measured.”  Because the Promise Scholarship Program funds training for all secular professions, Justice Scalia contends the State must also fund training for religious professions. But training for religious professions and training for secular professions are not fungible. Training someone to lead a congregation is an essentially religious endeavor. Indeed, majoring in devotional theology is akin to a religious calling as well as an academic pursuit.  And the subject of religion is one in which both the United States and state constitutions embody distinct views–in favor of free exercise, but opposed to establishment–that find no counterpart with respect to other callings or professions. That a State would deal differently with religious education for the ministry than with education for other callings is a product of these views, not evidence of hostility toward religion....

    Far from evincing the hostility toward religion which was manifest in Lukumi, we believe that the entirety of the Promise Scholarship Program goes a long way toward including religion in its benefits. The program permits students to attend pervasively religious schools, so long as they are accredited. As Northwest advertises, its “concept of education is distinctly Christian in the evangelical sense.”  It prepares all of its students, “through instruction, through modeling, [and] through [its] classes, to use … the Bible as their guide, as the truth,” no matter their chosen profession. And under the Promise Scholarship Program’s current guidelines, students are still eligible to take devotional theology courses. Davey notes all students at Northwest are required to take at least four devotional courses, “Exploring the Bible,” “Principles of Spiritual Development,” “Evangelism in the Christian Life,” and “Christian Doctrine,” and some students may have additional religious requirements as part of their majors. 

    In short, we find neither in the history or text of Article I, §11 of the Washington Constitution, nor in the operation of the Promise Scholarship Program, anything that suggests animus towards religion. Given the historic and substantial state interest at issue, we therefore cannot conclude that the denial of funding for vocational religious instruction alone is inherently constitutionally suspect.

    Without a presumption of unconstitutionality, Davey’s claim must fail. The State’s interest in not funding the pursuit of devotional degrees is substantial and the exclusion of such funding places a relatively minor burden on Promise Scholars. If any room exists between the two Religion Clauses, it must be here. We need not venture further into this difficult area in order to uphold the Promise Scholarship Program as currently operated by the State of Washington.


Justice Scalia, with whom Justice Thomas joins, dissenting.

    In Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, the majority opinion held that “[a] law burdening religious practice that is not neutral … must undergo the most rigorous of scrutiny,” and that “the minimum requirement of neutrality is that a law not discriminate on its face.”  The concurrence of two Justices stated that “[w]hen a law discriminates against religion as such, … it automatically will fail strict scrutiny.” And the concurrence of a third Justice endorsed the “noncontroversial principle” that “formal neutrality” is a “necessary conditio[n] for free-exercise constitutionality.” These opinions are irreconcilable with today’s decision, which sustains a public benefits program that facially discriminates against religion....

    When the State makes a public benefit generally available, that benefit becomes part of the baseline against which burdens on religion are measured; and when the State withholds that benefit from some individuals solely on the basis of religion, it violates the Free Exercise Clause no less than if it had imposed a special tax.

    That is precisely what the State of Washington has done here. It has created a generally available public benefit, whose receipt is conditioned only on academic performance, income, and attendance at an accredited school. It has then carved out a solitary course of study for exclusion: theology.  No field of study but religion is singled out for disfavor in this fashion. Davey is not asking for a special benefit to which others are not entitled.  He seeks only equal treatment–the right to direct his scholarship to his chosen course of study, a right every other Promise Scholar enjoys....

    The Court’s reference to historical “popular uprisings against procuring taxpayer funds to support church leaders” is therefore quite misplaced. That history involved not the inclusion of religious ministers in public benefits programs like the one at issue here, but laws that singled them out for financial aid.... One can concede the Framers’ hostility to funding the clergy specifically, but that says nothing about whether the clergy had to be excluded from benefits the State made available to all. No one would seriously contend, for example, that the Framers would have barred ministers from using public roads on their way to church.

    The Court does not dispute that the Free Exercise Clause places some constraints on public benefits programs, but finds none here, based on a principle of “ ‘play in the joints.’ ” I use the term “principle” loosely, for that is not so much a legal principle as a refusal to apply any principle when faced with competing constitutional directives. There is nothing anomalous about constitutional commands that abut. A municipality hiring public contractors may not discriminate against blacks or in favor of them; it cannot discriminate a little bit each way and then plead “play in the joints” when haled into court. If the Religion Clauses demand neutrality, we must enforce them, in hard cases as well as easy ones.

    Even if “play in the joints” were a valid legal principle, surely it would apply only when it was a close call whether complying with one of the Religion Clauses would violate the other. But that is not the case here. It is not just that “the State could, consistent with the Federal Constitution, permit Promise Scholars to pursue a degree in devotional theology.” The establishment question would not even be close, as is evident from the fact that this Court’s decision in Witters v. Washington Dept. of Servs. for Blind (1986), was unanimous. Perhaps some formally neutral public benefits programs are so gerrymandered and devoid of plausible secular purpose that they might raise specters of state aid to religion, but an evenhanded Promise Scholarship Program is not among them.

    In any case, the State already has all the play in the joints it needs. There are any number of ways it could respect both its unusually sensitive concern for the conscience of its taxpayers and the Federal Free Exercise Clause. It could make the scholarships redeemable only at public universities (where it sets the curriculum), or only for select courses of study. Either option would replace a program that facially discriminates against religion with one that just happens not to subsidize it. The State could also simply abandon the scholarship program altogether. If that seems a dear price to pay for freedom of conscience, it is only because the State has defined that freedom so broadly that it would be offended by a program with such an incidental, indirect religious effect....   

    The Court makes no serious attempt to defend the program’s neutrality, and instead identifies two features thought to render its discrimination less offensive. The first is the lightness of Davey’s burden. The Court offers no authority for approving facial discrimination against religion simply because its material consequences are not severe. I might understand such a test if we were still in the business of reviewing facially neutral laws that merely happen to burden some individual’s religious exercise, but we are not.... 

    Even if there were some threshold quantum-of-harm requirement, surely Davey has satisfied it. The First Amendment, after all, guarantees free exercise of religion, and when the State exacts a financial penalty of almost $3,000 for religious exercise–whether by tax or by forfeiture of an otherwise available benefit–religious practice is anything but free....

    The other reason the Court thinks this particular facial discrimination less offensive is that the scholarship program was not motivated by animus toward religion. The Court does not explain why the legislature’s motive matters, and I fail to see why it should. If a State deprives a citizen of trial by jury or passes an ex post facto law, we do not pause to investigate whether it was actually trying to accomplish the evil the Constitution prohibits. It is sufficient that the citizen’s rights have been infringed. “[It does not] matter that a legislature consists entirely of the purehearted, if the law it enacts in fact singles out a religious practice for special burdens.” 

   Today’s holding is limited to training the clergy, but its logic is readily extendible, and there are plenty of directions to go. What next? 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? This may seem fanciful, but recall that France has proposed banning religious attire from schools, invoking interests in secularism no less benign than those the Court embraces today.  When the public’s freedom of conscience is invoked to justify denial of equal treatment, benevolent motives shade into indifference and ultimately into repression. Having accepted the justification in this case, the Court is less well equipped to fend it off in the future. I respectfully dissent.

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