The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that the state of Washington may deny college scholarships to students majoring in theology without violating their constitutional rights to free exercise of religion. According to the majority opinion (pdf), written by Chief Justice Rehnquist:
“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…
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.“
At first glance, this seems a decision that may have wide reaching ramifications for many state benefits, most notably, the funding of primary and secondary education at religious schools through voucher programs. While the court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris et. al. (pdf) that such voucher programs are allowed to give parents the choice to use vouchers to send their kids to religious schools, this ruling deals with whether the state is required to fund religious education. Moreover, the court specifically distinguishes students seeking divinity degrees from students who happen to study religion as part of a larger education or students who study secular topics at religious schools:
“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.“
Students can use the scholarships to study religion, they simply may not use state funds to study to become a minister. The scholarship program is constitutional because it permits the free exercise of religion, it simply does not allow public funds to be used to create more clergy members. It’s a subtle distinction, but it is there.
However, as Justice Scalia notes in his dissent (joined by Justice Thomas in an unsurprising 7-2 decision), “No field of study but religion is singled out for disfavor in this fashion.” I’ve complained in the past that religion is given special treatment in our society and that secular moral views are given short shrift when it comes to constitutional protection. In this case, however, the court has decided that while a state may strive to educate its young people to become good citizens and moral leaders, it will not help students who wish to become a particular kind of moral leader. If I believe that reason and individual freedom are the bases of morality, and I wanted to study philosophy and sociology to become a public morals expert, the Washington state program would fund it. However, if I believe that God is the basis of morality, and I want to study that to become a moral leader, that’s excluded from the program. Essentially, this seems a case where the court has dispensed with neutrality towards religion and is singling it out as a particular moral calling that society as a whole cannot support. Justice Scalia writes, “if the Religion Clauses demand neutrality, we must enforce them, in hard cases as well as easy ones.” Such neutrality is the only way to ensure freedom of conscience for all Americans, religious or otherwise.
That said, there is something to be said for the fact that every minister, at least in the Christian faith at issue here, churned out by the universities will likely engage in proselytizing activity. To the extent that we could fund the education of future social leaders without funding people who would try to convert others to a particular religion, it would seem that we’re funding some additional amount of religious indoctrination that could be avoided if the scholarship money were diverted from divinity schools to nursing schools, counseling students, public service schools, and others who provide the same sorts of moral and community services that religion has always been good at providing. Of course, the same is true of secular majors at religious schools, since we could send an English major or a science major to a secular school and fund the education of that profession without funding religion, but that is much harder to disentangle, as most districts have found when they try to help religious primary schools pay for textbooks or bussing services. But it still seems unfair that simply because God is a part of their moral philosophy, they should be denied a benefit that we secular moralists are allowed to take advantage of.
Maybe I have a unique perspective on this, since I’m an atheist. I believe that there is no important difference, at least for public policy purposes, between moral views based on God and moral views based on other, secular principles. People of religious faith have argued with me that there is something qualitatively different about God-based beliefs that makes them higher and more sacred than my secular beliefs. Some have even taken offense at the suggestion that my moral objection to, say, eating meat, should be given the same legal protections as someone else’s belief that God wants him to rest on Sundays. I’ve had actual fights about this, in which religious people insist that while the government, for example, has a moral obligation to provide prison inmates with time and space to pray, the same obligation does not exist to provide them with canvas shoes if they object to wearing leather for non-religious moral reasons. I strongly disagree, and although it may result in funding of religion that is not strictly necessary to fulfill basic government duties, in the end, I do think that a generally available benefit should be extended to the religious just as it is to the secular, whatever calling they choose to pursue. The Supreme Court got this one wrong. I only hope this doesn’t set a precedent for further exclusion of the religious from the public sphere, but I fear that proponents of a strictly secular society will seize on this to promote their agenda. And we’ve all seen where trying to keep religion entirely out of public life can lead…