Wednesday, February 25, 2004

We're Down to 2 Justices

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court, in a new rendering on separation of church and state, voted Wednesday to let states withhold scholarships from students studying theology.
The court's 7-2 ruling held that the state of Washington was within its rights to deny a taxpayer-funded scholarship to a college student who was studying to be a minister. That holding applies even when money is available to students studying anything else.
``Training someone to lead a congregation is an essentially religious endeavor,'' Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court majority. ``Indeed, majoring in devotional theology is akin to a religious calling as well as an academic pursuit.''
The case is a departure from recent church-state fights in which the Supreme Court has gradually allowed greater state sponsorship of religious activities. Rehnquist is usually a supporter of that idea.
Wednesday's case has implications for President Bush's plan to allow more church-based organizations to compete for government money, and the Bush administration argued that the state had been wrong to yank the scholarship from former student Joshua Davey.
Davey won a state Promise Scholarship, but the state rescinded the money when it learned what he planned to study.
Like 36 other states, Washington prohibits spending public funds on this kind of religious education. Bans on public funds for religious education, often known as Blaine amendments, date to the 19th century, when anti-Catholic sentiment ran high.
``It imposes neither criminal nor civil sanctions on any type of religious service or rite,'' the high court majority said.
``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.''
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented


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